Scottish play for power: high aims or pure politics?

Holyrood seeks power over admissions, governance and, via the SFC, courses. David Matthews reports

December 6, 2012

A bill giving the Scottish government powers over university governance, admissions and courses will open the door to “political interference”, the University and College Union has said.

The Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill, announced on November, would give Holyrood powers to change university governance and demand initiatives aimed at allowing more pupils from poor backgrounds to enter university.

The legislation gives the Scottish Funding Council “with the consent of the Scottish Ministers” the ability to review higher and further education in Scotland, including the “types of programmes of learning or courses of education”.

A spokesman for UCU Scotland said that “if there was a department critical of the government (ministers) could ask the funding council to review that”. The union did not think the Scottish National Party intended to interfere with course content, he added, but the legislation made this a “possibility” for future governments.

Although the SFC would conduct the review and decide on changes, it was strongly influenced by the government, the UCU spokesman said.

Mary Senior, the UCU’s Scottish official, said that the changes brought “the possibility of political interference in the provision and content of courses, undermining both the institutional autonomy of universities and the academic freedom of lecturers”.

A government spokesman said that the bill would help the SFC to ensure “coherence in provision” but stressed that universities would remain “autonomous, independent bodies, and there are no powers over course content”.

Robin Parker, president of the National Union of Students in Scotland, said that the new powers could be used to protect at-risk courses. But, he added, “if the power were to be used to attempt to force mergers on institutions we would oppose it”.

The bill also gives ministers direct power to force universities to do more to recruit disadvantaged students, against rising criticism of the widening-access record of Scotland’s most selective institutions.

In June, the NUS revealed that the University of St Andrews, with an undergraduate cohort of 7,370, accepted just 13 students from the poorest fifth of Scottish postcodes in 2010-11. It has committed to raise that figure to 20, and the University of Glasgow has said it will try to recruit 180 students from the poorest fifth by 2014-15.

The legislation allows the government to withhold money if a university fails to comply with a widening access agreement.

It also gives ministers the power to withhold funding until “any principles of governance or management which the Scottish Ministers consider to constitute good practice” are adopted by an institution.

In a statement, Pete Downes, convener of Universities Scotland and vice-chancellor of the University of Dundee, says that it is important “to ensure that the legislation gets the nature of the complex relationship between the Scottish Government, the Funding Council and universities right”. Universities need “a framework of institutional autonomy”, he adds.

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