Over recent years the substance of the discussion about universities, at least in the developed world, has tended to shift from pedagogy and scholarship to organisation and process. Debates and arguments have been more about money, management and marketing, and rather less about teaching and research. It is not necessarily perverse that this should be so, because as higher education has embraced a much larger proportion of the population, its institutions have become more numerous and more complex.
Clearly there is more than one possible policy for higher education, and within the UK several models have now been attempted. In 2011, when I arrived in Scotland, I was asked by Michael Russell, the education secretary, to chair a review of higher education governance. We reported in early 2012. Our key principles can be summarised as follows: (a) that universities should be autonomous and independent, and that they should commit themselves formally to academic freedom; (b) that without prejudicing this autonomy, universities should join with the government in an annual discussion of national higher education strategy; (c) that each university’s processes and decision-making should be open and transparent; and (d) that universities should allow staff and student participation wherever appropriate and possible in these processes.
We recognised the success of Scotland’s higher education system and institutions, but we suggested that the sector needed to ensure that it had, and also that it had retained, the confidence and support of its stakeholders and of the wider society. Beyond that, we argued that there should be a shared vision of higher education, and that reform would be more robust if there were more research on the objective evidence on which such reform could be based.
Critically, we also suggested that in Scotland there was a shared view that “the pursuit of learning and scholarship is one in which society as a whole has an interest that should be reflected in the development of higher education”. Universities should therefore be seen as “independent public bodies” with responsibilities to students, staff and the wider community.
The recommendations of our review sparked some debate, a lot of which focused on our suggestion that governing body chairs should be elected. But the key intention of our report was to suggest that there was, and that there should be, a distinctive Scottish higher education ethos that was different from the model evolving south of the border. Its key driver is the view that universities are part of a broader understanding of society that recognises a public stake in the development of knowledge and innovation – while also acknowledging that successful universities that can compete on the global stage need to be autonomous.
The Scottish government accepted the principles underpinning the governance report and is committed to legislation to implement those recommendations that require it.
How could the outcome of the referendum next month affect all this? At one level, perhaps not much: education is already devolved and the reform agenda is already under way. But independence or greater devolution could reinforce the view that Scotland’s system of higher education is different, but also ambitious and innovative, and that it incorporates the ideal of a “democratic intellect” in which all of its society has a stake.