Source: British Council
After more than 10 years at the helm of Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland’s first female vice-chancellor has spoken out against government interference and quotas for women on governing bodies.
Dame Joan Stringer, who led what is now Queen Margaret University for six years before her decade at Edinburgh Napier, will retire at the end of June amid uncertainty in the Scottish sector over funding, autonomy and national independence.
Michael Russell, Scotland’s education secretary, has expressed support for a series of university governance reforms recommended by a review chaired by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University, which reported last year. One of its most controversial recommendations is that at least four in 10 governing body members should be female.
But in an interview with Times Higher Education, Dame Joan said she would “avoid quotas” because they could lead to “cosmetic”, “tick-box” appointments.
“You need the best people for the role,” she said, although she added that it was crucial for universities “to be mindful of the need to have as diverse a body as is appropriate”.
When she became vice-chancellor of Edinburgh Napier, Dame Joan was Scotland’s first female university leader, but now four other institutions (out of a total of 19) have women at the helm, a proportion she describes as “reasonable”.
“It’s not quite as far as I would have liked it to come in 10 years but at least we’re making inroads,” she said. “There’s acceptance in the sector that it’s not an unusual thing.”
Dame Joan is pleased that she will be succeeded by Andrea Nolan, currently deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Glasgow. “I think there has been some shift,” she said.
The Holyrood government has also required universities to draw up access agreements detailing specific widening-participation targets.
There is “apprehension” in the sector over this level of intervention, she said, and the targets could “move institutions strategically in directions that perhaps they wouldn’t choose to go”.
In return for the sector’s consent to such agreements, the government has guaranteed a growing university budget up to 2014-15.
However, Dame Joan sees storm clouds on the horizon.
“The economy does not seem to be heading towards growth any time soon and the costs…will rise relative to income unless universities can generate more [cash] from other sources,” she said. This would lead to a “chipping away” of the funding base and the “gradual, relative decline” of Scottish universities.
In line with other vice-chancellors, Dame Joan said she “wouldn’t see anything wrong” in graduate contributions to boost funding.
The Scottish National Party has made free university education a totemic policy, and she admitted that for the current government “it is a sacred principle”.
But Dame Joan said she was unsure whether the principle was unbreakable in Scotland as a whole, raising the prospect that a change of government could usher in the graduate contribution scheme that university leaders hope for.