Proposals for legislation requiring Scottish university governing bodies to have elected chairs and to include staff and student representatives have been published.
The new act would implement key recommendations of the review of higher education governance led by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, but Universities Scotland has questioned whether the proposals “are appropriate subjects for government policy or legislation”.
NUS Scotland has raised concerns about outstanding recommendations that are not included, such as the suggestions that remuneration committees dealing with senior managers’ salaries should include staff and student representatives, and that senior staff including principals could be included in the national pay spine.
A consultation, published on 7 November, proposes that legislation should be introduced to ensure that chairs of Scottish governing bodies are picked via a “transparent process” that includes public advertisement, interviews, and an election involving shortlisted candidates.
The proposed legislation would also require governing bodies to include at least two student representatives, nominated by the students’ union; two directly elected staff members; one member nominated by academic unions; and one nominated by administrative or support staff unions. There should be up to two alumni representatives, the consultation adds.
Other proposals include legislation to require academic boards to be the final arbiters on academic matters, and for all members to be elected by the constituency they represent apart from the principal and heads of school. Elected members should be in the majority, the consultation adds.
Michael Russell, the Scottish education secretary, said the country’s universities must continue to innovate “if we are to keep our standards high”.
“Our higher education institutions, with such a rich history and exciting future, are, by their own account, some of the most autonomous in the world,” said Mr Russell. “They must continue to have a strong democratic accountability in their governance arrangements.”
Mr Russell added that he was seeking the transfer of powers from Westminster to allow him to enact a further recommendation from the von Prondzynski review – a requirement for 40 per cent of the membership of governing bodies to be female.
In response to the start of consultation, Universities Scotland said its members had adopted a governance code that promoted principles such as transparency and inclusiveness.
Pete Downes, the association’s convenor and principal of the University of Dundee, said discussion was needed over whether some of the proposals were “appropriate subjects for government policy or legislation, or whether they reflect recommendations which the von Prondzynski review made to universities rather than to government”.
“We urge careful appraisal of whether government action now will enhance universities’ implementation of the principles which are at the heart of our autonomy and success,” said Professor Downes.
Gordon Maloney, president of NUS Scotland, described the proposals as a step forward, but warned they would “still leave us short” of fully implementing the von Prondzynski review, which also recommended – alongside the suggestions on executive pay – the abolition of bonuses for senior staff, or greater transparency in this area as a minimum.
“For universities to be delivering the greatest public benefit, we need to see a legislative basis for fair representation on our governing bodies, greater transparency of senior university officials’ pay, and a requirement for universities to fulfil their wider social responsibilities,” Mr Maloney said.