Scottish Government propose reform against absentee rectors


Chris McLaughlin


Absentee university rectors such as Edward Snowden might become a thing of the past and future rectors may no longer be elected solely by students if reforms proposed by the Scottish Government are accepted. The modernization agenda also calls for more positions on university governing bodies to be reserved for student, staff and alumni representatives, and for 40% of Senate positions to be held by women.

Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning Mike Russell made the recommendations in a Scottish Government consultation document on a new Higher Education Governance Bill published on 7 November. Taken in sum the changes would arguably amount to the most radical shake-up  of Scottish university governance ever seen.

The rectors of Scotland’s ancient universities (Saint Andrew’s, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh) are all currently nominated and elected by the student body alone. The principal task of the University rector is to chair the university courts which decide on each institution’s strategic planning. Dundee also elects a rector who is a member of the university court but is not the chair. Other Scottish universities use a wide variety of processes to appoint their court chair.

Under the new proposals all such Scottish university vacancies would be advertised, with panels including student and staff representatives interviewing applicants and selecting a shortlist of candidates. Final selection would be by election amongst students and staff. In order to attract an improved variety and quality of applicants, a salary would be offered to the successful candidate.

Other reforms, broadly similar to what is already in place at Glasgow would require university courts to be limited to a maximum of 25 members, including a minimum of two student members nominated by the SRC, as well as at least two members directly elected by university employees. Additionally one member each would be nominated by trades unions representing academic and non-academic staff. For the first time in Scotland two further members would also be elected by University alumni. University Courts would therefore be more than one-third made up of student, staff and alumni representatives.

Academic boards (known as Senates at the ancient universities) which manage the day to day running of universities would be limited to 120 members; Glasgow currently has around 500. A majority of the members would be required to be elected by the institution’s academic staff. Mr Russell added that the Scottish Government would be seeking the devolution of the powers required to set a minimum quota of 40% of these members to be female. At present both equality and employment law are Westminster reserved matters over which the Scots parliament has no remit. The Scottish Government would also seek to institute a local alternative to the Privy Council – a group of advisers to the Queen, whose responsibilities include oversight of the governance of Scottish universities.

Speaking at the consultation’s launch, Mr Russell remarked on the importance of ensuring democratic accountability at the highest levels of university governance and stated: “Our higher education institutions, with such a rich history and exciting future, are, by their own account, some of the most autonomous in the world…They must continue to have a strong democratic accountability in their governance arrangements.”

However, the announcement was met with a cool response by Universities Scotland convener Professor Pete Downes who replied that Scottish universities’ governance code was already grounded upon “inclusiveness, transparency, effectiveness and accountability.”

David Newall, secretary of Court told the Glasgow Guardian, “The proposal for elected chairs is set out in a consultation document recently issued by the Scottish Government.  The University is still to consider its response, which is due by 30 January.  One possible interpretation of the Government’s consultation paper is that it would like all universities in Scotland to follow the lead of the older universities (including Glasgow) in having an elected Rector.”


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