Scotland’s education secretary has stressed that further talks on the controversial higher education governance bill will involve unions and students, not universities alone, as tensions grow over claims that the legislation could lead to universities’ being reclassified as public sector bodies.
Angela Constance, the Scottish government Cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, made the comments at a fringe meeting during the Scottish National Party’s conference on 16 October.
Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, had said the previous week during first minister’s questions – after being urged by Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson to drop a bill that universities “hate” – that “we will continue to engage with the universities and discuss these issues”.
Some observers read that as paving the way to potential amendments to the bill to reflect universities’ concerns. But others point out that the bill is at the first stage of its progress through the Scottish Parliament, meaning that further consultation is standard.
Among other things, Universities Scotland has objected to plans for elected chairs of governing bodies if chosen by an electorate other than the governing body itself.
The organisation also warns that by giving ministers powers over governing bodies, including that of determining how chairs are selected, the bill may prompt the Office for National Statistics to reclassify Scottish universities as part of the public sector and also jeopardise their charitable status. Both developments would deal significant financial blows to universities.
The bill, which has been 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.
‘Door has been and remains open’
Despite speaking at two higher education fringe events held at the SNP conference in Aberdeen, Ms Constance offered only one brief comment on the bill, in answer to a question from Times Higher Education. With sensitivities over the bill running high, it appeared that ministers and universities alike were reluctant to debate the issue in public.
Asked if she shared Ms Sturgeon’s view that there could be more talks with universities, and what the key points of discussion would be, Ms Constance said: “The door has been open for consultation since the bill was introduced. We’ve been having a dialogue with all the stakeholders. But those stakeholders also include the UCU and the NUS, as well as Universities Scotland. So the door has been open, and continues to be open, for a dialogue.”
Ms Sturgeon has said that the bill “is not about introducing ministerial control over universities”, but is “about ensuring that the governance of our universities is transparent and inclusive”.
Speaking to THE at the conference, Sir Pete Downes, convener of Universities Scotland and vice-chancellor of the University of Dundee, said: “We do believe those [ministerial] powers are at least sufficient to encourage the Office for National Statistics to scrutinise university governance in Scotland and significantly, if not very significantly, enhance the risk that the ONS will reclassify universities as public bodies.”
Universities Scotland has warned that ONS reclassification would lead to restrictions on universities’ ability to borrow and to “the loss of philanthropic income”.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, noted that the Westminster government had gone to great lengths in 2012 to persuade the ONS to reverse a decision to reclassify further education colleges as public sector bodies.
“There is a history of the ONS looking very carefully at these things,” he said.
And Mr Hillman said that reclassification could lead to government intervention in universities on a range of issues. “Once you’ve gone over that massive hurdle, where then does government responsibility end?”
The stakeholders’ vote
The bill states that ministers will determine the method of election of governing body chairs. The UCU has called for votes to be held among staff and students.
Sir Pete said: “If you are a chair elected by a particular stakeholder group, or in this case two specific stakeholder groups, it is very hard for you to separate your actions as the chair from the expectations of those stakeholder groups…and from the expectations you gave them when you asked them to elect you.”
Douglas Chalmers, UCU Scotland president, said: “The key issues of elected chairs of governing bodies and places for student and trade union nominees will have an important role to play in ending the disconnect that has arisen between many governing bodies and the university community of staff and students.”