The Scottish government is pushing ahead with legislation on the membership of universities’ governing bodies, but has agreed to hold further consultation on plans for their chairs to be elected.
The higher education governance (Scotland) bill, published on 17 June, 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.
This proposal had been opposed by 67 per cent of respondents in a consultation, with universities warning that trade union representatives could have a conflict of interest between their responsibility to act in the best interests of the institution as a whole and their union’s duties to its membership.
The most contentious proposal, opposed by 78 per cent of respondents, was to require chairs of governing bodies to be chosen through an election that could potentially involve voters from outside the university.
The bill leaves the door open for this, but states that the process for the selection of chairs will be set out in regulations to be made by ministers at a later date, after further consultation.
Universities Scotland has said that chairs should be selected by the governing bodies themselves, to ensure that the chair retains the confidence of their colleagues, and to prevent them from being elected on the basis of policies or promises that are opposed by the council.
Sir Pete Downes, the convenor of Universities Scotland, said that the bill needed “careful amendments”.
“Every member of the governing body needs to take responsibility for decisions that promote the institution’s success. It’s also why you need an effective chair with the full confidence of the governing body,” said Sir Pete, the principal of the University of Dundee. “Universities don’t want to see these lines of accountability and objectivity weakened and want to work with Parliament and government to ensure this.”
The bill also legislates on the size and membership of universities’ academic boards, with a requirement for at least half the members to be elected by staff and students.
But other proposals that were consulted on have been dropped: in particular, a plan to end the role of the Privy Council in Scottish higher education governance, and a requirement for principals to be known as chief executive officers.
Angela Constance, the Scottish education secretary, said that the bill would “create a more modern and accountable framework of governance for our higher education institutions to work within”, with a stronger voice for staff and students.
“We want the public to have total confidence in how our universities operate,” she said. “That’s why we are enabling the higher education sector to adopt transparency and inclusion as key governing principles, and ensure that more light is shone on decision-making processes.”
The bill, which was welcomed by the University and College Union and the National Union of Students, follows a 2012 review of governance by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the principal of Robert Gordon University.
“It is vitally important that Scotland’s universities reinforce their undoubted success in learning and scholarship by demonstrating openness, transparency and inclusiveness,” Professor von Prondzynski said. “The bill will significantly support our higher education system in demonstrating both democratic accountability and intellectual integrity, as part of a society that values learning and discovery.”