Scottish universities attack governance bill

Scotland’s universities have called on the Holyrood government to put on hold an overhaul of governance in the sector after the proposals met with significant resistance.

April 9, 2015

One of the most contentious measures in the proposed Scottish higher education governance bill, a requirement for chairs of university governing bodies to be chosen in an election involving internal and external voters, was opposed by 78 per cent of respondents to a government consultation.

Another proposal – which would require governing bodies to include at least two student representatives, two directly elected staff members, two alumni representatives and two members nominated by academic and administrative trade unions – was opposed by 67 per cent of respondents.

The bill, which was launched by Michael Russell, the former education secretary, would implement key recommendations of the governance review led by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University.

But Pete Downes, convenor of Universities Scotland and principal of the University of Dundee, said that ministers urgently needed to “reflect seriously on the wide range of evidence that says the proposals in the consultation paper will damage universities’ contribution to Scotland’s success”.

“The weight of consultation responses from civic Scotland and the level of concern expressed, on top of that already made clear by universities, mean that ministers need to pause and take stock,” Professor Downes said.

In the consultation, many universities warned that elections could lead to chairs being elected without having the confidence of the governing body, to which they will be accountable. It could also lead to politicisation of the post and serve as a deterrent to high calibre candidates considering putting themselves forward, responses said.

Universities also claimed that inclusion of trade union representatives on governing bodies could create a conflict of interest between board members’ responsibility to act in the best interests of an institution as a whole and trade unions’ duties to their members.

Legislation was unnecessary, according to many institutions, which have independently agreed to require a minimum of 40 per cent of governing body members to be female.

However, institutions were attacked as being “out of touch” by the University and College Union Scotland, which said “far greater scrutiny” of decision making was required.

“Universities need to stop trying to block these progressive measures and accept the old way of doing things is done and greater transparency is now on the agenda,” said Mary Senior, Scotland official for the UCU.

The consultation attracted 125 responses, a quarter of which were from universities and university representative bodies. It also found that 91 per cent of respondents opposed a requirement for university principals to be called “chief executive officers”.

A Scottish government spokeswoman said the bill aimed “to modernise and strengthen governance, embedding the principles of democracy and accountability in the higher education sector”.

She added: “All views and ideas offered by stakeholders on the provisions for the bill are now being carefully considered and we will continue to engage with university leaders, unions and other interested parties as we progress towards introduction. This will inform the shape of the bill.”

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