There is an interesting, if disturbing, paradox within higher education in the developed world. Many key performance indicators suggest that universities are getting fitter, more efficient, faster in decision-making; better at recruiting the disadvantaged; less gender biased; more business-like; and better at providing discoveries for society's benefit. And a walk through any university campus will show you that buildings are better and facilities more up to date than was once the case.
So why, then, are media stories about higher education so often negative? Why do people complain about management style, remuneration of senior staff, the erosion of student-to-staff ratios, the inadequate educational attainment of students, and the inappropriateness of commercial practices?
At the heart of this contradiction is growing uncertainty as to what higher education is actually about. There is no consensus on whether universities are there to provide vocational training to secure employment for graduates and the necessary skills for society, or to offer an education largely uninfluenced by business and employment. There is no sense of how far institutional diversity (in general terms taken as an article of faith) can be pushed without straining the boundaries of respectable pedagogy and scholarship. There is no consensus about how universities should be managed and led, or how they should be equipped to deal with the burdens of bureaucracy that the state imposes in the name of quality and accountability.
None of this is helped by reforms in some countries that might be described as wacky at best.
For anyone tasked with suggesting reforms, this paradox presents serious dilemmas. If our institutions lead the world, why risk that success by changing how they are run? On the other hand, if so many people who work in or with universities, or who study in them, feel such disaffection, why risk those feelings turning into something more toxic? If education is an adventure of discovery, why leave intact a system that has so many cynical or disillusioned members?
This, in broad terms, was the task facing the panel set up by the Scottish government to review higher education governance. We were strongly aware of the excellence and success of Scottish universities, overrepresented as they are in global rankings, student-satisfaction returns and research income league tables. On the other hand, as we sought submissions and evidence, we were keenly aware of the criticisms and doubts being expressed to us.
We were determined to place at the heart of any reforms the key principles of higher education - academic freedom and institutional autonomy - while ensuring that these principles were not going to compete with each other. It was our desire to see universities as places where free thinking is encouraged and critical intellectual curiosity is celebrated, where intelligent leadership creates a community of purpose that is able to act independently of external compulsion, but with the capacity to recognise social, cultural and economic needs nationwide. To make all this possible, we wanted a system that has the confidence and consent of its key stakeholders, internal and external.
To achieve this, we believe, we need more openness and transparency, as well as a recognition of democratic accountability. So, last week we recommended that the key elements of governance and management should follow best practice, including more transparent pay-setting for principals and open processes for determining the membership of governing bodies, so that institutional structures include representation by those most affected and indeed most expert. To reflect the academy's democratic ideals, we recommended that the chairs of governing bodies should, after a process to ensure the suitability of candidates, be elected.
The recommendations for reform were not criticisms, explicit or implied, of Scottish higher education. But it was our view that the system would be helped and encouraged by measures to increase confidence and consent, and that could reinforce a sense of community. As Scotland debates its constitutional future, its universities will be key to its future success.