Unenlightened bill

October 15, 2015

Angela Constance, Scotland’s Cabinet secretary for education, is ramming through the Scottish Parliament a bill that gives her direct control of Scottish universities (“Nicola Sturgeon forced to defend governance bill”, 9 October).

The bill’s supporters, including the minister, say that it is not about control, it is about democracy, fairness and other feel-good phrases. I take at face value the promises of Ms Constance that she does not want to run universities. Like Julius Caesar, she will refuse the crown given her.

No one can defend the current status quo, and we do need change in the composition and functioning of governing bodies. However, this bill hands to politicians the levers of control in perpetuity, the power to vary governance at will. Ms Constance cannot bind her successors. In every country throughout history, once a power is given it will be used. The governance of Scottish universities is therefore dependent on political favour. The whispered threats of using these powers will prove more than sufficient to exercise control.

The reason this is happening is the Von Prondzynski report. It has set the tone for all that has followed: solutions without problems, conclusions without evidence and changes without analysis.

People wonder why Scots feel different; in part it is because our distinctive and diverse civic institutions have stood autonomous outside the homogenising British state for more than 300 years. The irony is that a Scottish nationalist government is leading the charge against this pillar of Scottish civic society. The tragedy is that it is Scotland, the Enlightenment’s birthplace, home to several of the world’s best institutions and a country whose most influential export was a commitment to education, that is legislating for political control of universities.

James Naismith
Bishop Wardlaw professor of chemical biology, University of St Andrews

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