Scotland's university chiefs cool on governance review

Limited support for proposals on elected chairs and gender quotas. David Matthews writes

February 9, 2012

Scottish principals have questioned the wisdom of proposed changes to university governing boards, including elected chairs and a quota of 40 per cent women.

The Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland, published last week by a panel chaired by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, also recommends weighted elections so that staff and students have an equal say in appointing the chair of governors.

Scottish education secretary Michael Russell said the review would be a "template" for improving university governance and welcomed the "intriguing" idea that chairs be elected.

In a statement, Seamus McDaid, convener of Universities Scotland and principal of the University of the West of Scotland, says the proposal on elected chairs raises "significant challenges and is only partially developed".

University of Edinburgh principal Sir Timothy O'Shea pointed out that the Edinburgh board's chair is already elected by staff and students.

"For an institution that is running well, if one says to it, 'Your governance is wrong, here's a new model' they're going to pause, aren't they, and say, 'Just a minute'," Sir Timothy said. He said the government and the sector had a "very positive" relationship and would collaborate on "refinements" to the proposals.

Peter Downes, principal of the University of Dundee, said he did not mind whether chairs were elected or appointed if they acted for the good of the whole university, rather than just those who elected them.

But he said "the court would be a very different thing if it functioned like a city council", which would be a "retrograde" step.

The Committee of Scottish Chairs also claimed that the idea "will not improve governance" and pointed out that the proposal was not supported by one member of the five-strong panel headed by Professor von Prondzynski.

The University and College Union backed the reforms.

The review also calls for the membership of governing boards to be at least 40 per cent female following "a specified transition period".

Sir Timothy said that although it was "an aspiration I would want to work for", a quota would be an "unusual move", pointing out that it was not a model used in either the Scottish or Westminster parliaments.

"If you were going to do something like that, I think you would probably start in the parliaments, wouldn't you?" he said.

Professor Downes said he would support the proposal "as a target" but "wouldn't want to hamstring courts by trying to get that number".

There has been less opposition to the proposal that principals' pay should be part of the national pay spine that currently applies to staff up to the level of professor.

Neither Sir Timothy nor Professor Downes objected to national benchmarking, but noted that remuneration committees already compare pay with other institutions.

Professor Downes said that because institutions were so different, "I really don't think it's a great idea for principals to all be on the same pay, or within a narrow band".

Ian Diamond, principal of the University of Aberdeen, said he preferred a remuneration system "that enables you to feel that you can attract the very best people to take those roles".

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