The Scottish government’s higher education governance bill has highlighted that universities elsewhere in the UK face issues of “legitimacy and accountability” in how they are run.
But at least one vice-chancellor outside Scotland has raised fears that the bill could spark a movement towards “lessening autonomy” that, if taken up in Wales, could become a clear trend in the UK.
The Scottish government says in its policy memorandum on the bill, published on 17 June, that change is needed to create a higher education governance framework that is “more modern, inclusive and accountable”.
The bill would require governing bodies to include at least two members directly elected by staff, and two members each nominated by trade unions, students’ unions and alumni associations.
But the bill, which stems from a government-commissioned 2012 review of governance by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the principal of Robert Gordon University, sprang a surprise on proposals for elected chairs, an idea previously outlined by the government.
Chairs are to be “appointed in accordance with a process set out in regulations made by the Scottish Ministers”, says the bill. Universities had expected a clearer proposal to elect chairs, which they could then have lobbied MSPs to amend to reflect concerns about accountability. They fear that by hiving off the measures into future regulations introduced by ministers, the scope to amend the plans has been reduced.
Universities are also concerned about a section of the bill that gives ministers the power to modify by regulations the “categories of membership” included on governing bodies and the number of persons appointed under each category.
Sir Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at the UCL Institute of Education, said that there were problems with plans to elect chairs, as turnouts could be low and groups might attempt to “manipulate the results”.
But he added that “we should not conclude everything is all right with the present system”. University governing bodies are “self-selecting” and mostly composed of “white males with business backgrounds”, he continued. “The selection of chairs is a closed process. So there are real issues of legitimacy and accountability,” Sir Peter said.
He argued that the Scottish changes were unlikely to have any UK-wide impact as “the English are supremely uninterested in what happens outside England”.
But students’ unions in England are likely to argue that the case for mandatory student representation on governing bodies is even stronger in a system that is largely funded by their tuition fees.
Megan Dunn, president-elect of the National Union of Students, welcomed the Scottish bill’s moves on student representation.
She added: “In England it is an accepted norm that students should be represented on governing bodies, but in reality this is often just a tick-box exercise…My priority is to secure genuine and meaningful student representation across all higher education providers.”
Sally Hunt, the University and College Union’s general secretary, said that the union welcomed the Scottish bill “as a real step forward in reforming how universities are governed”. She added: “We want to see universities that are more democratic, that better represent their staff and students and whose decisions are fully transparent.”