Higher Education Governance response paper by the Council of Senate

Fraser McGowan
Deputy News Editor

The Council of Senate at the University of Glasgow has submitted a response paper to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the Higher Education Governance Bill, in which it outlines a number of objections to the proposals made by the Scottish Government in relation to the reform of higher education governance in Scotland.

In the response paper, the Council of Senate argues that, although the University is ‘analogous’ to a large business or public sector organisation, universities ‘represent a fundamentally different category of undertaking’. For that reason, the Council of Senate does not support the proposal made by the Scottish Government to replace the office of Principle with that of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) on the basis that it ‘would not contribute to public understanding of the roles of the universities’. The Council of Senate also supports retaining Anton Muscatelli’s second title of ‘Vice-Chancellor’ on the grounds that the position is of ‘concrete value in global contexts’.

The Council of Senate does, however, endorse the view of the Scottish Government that the current functions of the Privy Council relating to higher education in Scotland should be transferred to Scottish committees appointed and scrutinised by the Scottish Parliament, which they believe would result in greater efficiency because of the reduction in the number of stages of approval that currently exist.

The Scottish Government intends to reform the process for selecting the Chair of Court, which in the case of Glasgow University means changing the way in which the Rector of the University is elected by students.

In the consultation paper, the Scottish Government proposes that: ‘all chairs are appointed at the culmination of a transparent process which includes development of a job description and essential criteria for the position including both skills and attributes, public advertisement, competitive selection including shortlisting, interview, and finally election by a balanced and representative electorate’.

The interview panel would consist of lay members of the governing body, members of staff and students of the University, who would be responsible for drafting a shortlist of candidates for election. These changes would, effectively, have prevented Edward Snowden from standing for election to become Rector of Glasgow University in 2014.

In response to this proposal, the Council of Senate makes it clear that it supports ‘the election of the Chair of Court as the culmination of a transparent process involving selection criteria and interviewing,’ but remains ‘unclear whether it is proposed to retain or establish the position of Rector in all universities alongside an elected Chair of Court, or whether the position would be abolished with the introduction of a new procedure for identifying the Chair of Court’.

The Scottish Government Consultation paper also includes proposals to limit the number of members of academic boards at Scottish Universities to a maximum of 120 members.  The Council of Senate, however, disagrees with this proposal on the grounds that the Glasgow University Senate, which has approximately 600 members, ‘provides the University of Glasgow with a single body that comprises its entire community of senior scholars […] and the breadth of its membership helps ensure the academic voice is heard and that fully informed decisions are made’.

With reference to the recent changes made to the structure of the Senate at Glasgow University,  the response paper points out that: ‘[…] in a legally and constitutionally complex environment it has been possible to establish the Council of Senate at the University of Glasgow without need for legislative change, and it is possible that other institutions would similarly be able to identify means of meeting the terms of the Consultation proposals’. The response paper concludes by cautioning the Scottish Government against ‘prescribing on matters such as Academic Boards to the extent proposed’.

In a separate response to the consultation, the Glasgow University SRC said that: ‘[…] the consultation document itself is overly simplistic and fails to demonstrate an understanding as to the variation in governance structures and systems which exist in this diverse sector. We believe that harmonisation of governance of these institutions is an unrealistic and unnecessary goal’.