Nicola Sturgeon has been forced to defend Scotland’s bill on university governance against claims that the legislation would “demolish” universities’ autonomy and charitable status.
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, pressed Ms Sturgeon on the bill at First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood yesterday, telling her that universities “hate” the Scottish National Party government’s legislation.
Ms Sturgeon appeared to signal that there might be some further concessions to universities, but rejected Ms Davidson’s demands to drop the bill.
It would also dictate that set numbers of places on governing bodies must be reserved for representatives elected by staff, trade union members and students.
Ms Davidson said during First Minister’s Questions: “The reputation of our universities has been founded on their academic independence, and their sustainable funding depends on their charitable status.
“The bill, at a stroke, threatens to demolish both of those foundations. It is a bill that can cause huge harm but does not appear to give us any gain.”
Some critics of the bill have argued that it could prompt the Office for National Statistics to reclassify Scottish universities as public bodies, meaning they would lose tax advantages and face restrictions on their borrowing.
Ms Sturgeon responded that the bill “is not about introducing ministerial control over universities”, but is “about ensuring that the governance of our universities is transparent and inclusive”.
She quoted a submission from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator to the consultation on the bill, which said that the legislation “would not affect the constitutions of higher education institutions in ways that would give ministers the power to direct or control these institutions’ activities”.
The first minister noted the results of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-16, in which five Scottish universities figured in the top 200. This was “more per head of population than any other country on the face of this planet”, she said. “We will continue to work with our universities to make sure that they continue to be that fantastic success story.”
But Ms Davidson countered that Universities Scotland’s independent legal advice “says that the SNP’s reforms contain ‘significant risk’ that Scotland’s universities could lose their status as charities, threatening hundreds of millions of pounds of borrowing, private finance and income from donations”.
She added: “The bill is a mess. The universities hate it and say that they have not been properly consulted on it; the legal advice says that the bill could threaten universities’ charitable status; and the bill risks blowing a gaping hole in higher education funding – all for reasons that the Scottish government struggles to explain.”
Ms Sturgeon replied that “we will continue to engage with the universities and discuss these issues”.
She added: “My quote was from the charities regulator – the body that decides whether an institution has charitable status. I do not think that it is possible for Ruth Davidson simply to sweep that aside as if it does not matter.”