Edward Snowden condemns controversial higher education governance bill

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Edward Snowden addresses new students in Bute Hall. Credit: University of Glasgow.

Alastair Thomas
Editor

The rector of the University of Glasgow told freshers that changes to higher education governance in Scotland could limit student influence

Edward Snowden, rector of University of Glasgow, has criticised the Scottish government’s higher education governance bill in his annual Freshers’ Address.

The NSA contractor turned whistleblower, who was elected as rector in March 2014, was making his second speech via video link to freshers in the University’s Bute Hall.  

He said: “I was elected to send a message, and that was that people deserve to have a voice in government.

“As rector, I’ve been contacted by members of the Students’ Representative Council and I’ve seen stories in the newspaper, that indicate within Scotland, within the parliament, there is a new bill called the higher education governance act, which represents a real threat to the financial and academic independence of the university system of the oldest universities in Scotland.”

He continued: “More than anything else, one the most substantial changes for the ancient universities is that it will dilute the student and university voice in determining your own government, how you want to be ruled and how you want to be represented on the most senior bodies.

“And this means that the four ancient universities could lose their position of rector entirely.

“Beyond that, it means the buildings you work in, the funding that you can generate through grants and charitable statuses could be lost entirely. And while this may seem a little political for people who just arrived in the University, what you need to think about is this is a decision that, if you do not participate in it, you will lose influence you once had, you will lose rights that you once had, you will lose the representation that you once had that you will never be able to receive again. Because this is something we see around the world as far as how rights work. The only rights that you enjoy are the ones that you stand up for.”

The future of the rectorship has been left in doubt, as proposals outlined in the the higher education governance bill would effectively replace the rector as the chair of the University Court with an elected chairing member instead.

The cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning Angela Constance has denied any attempt by the Scottish government to abolish the position of rector, but the proposed amendment to the 1889 Universities (Scotland) Act replaces the title of “rector” with that of “chairing member” in the section of the Act which stipulates who has the responsibility of chairing the University Court.

Candidates for this position of “chairing member” would be subject to a rigorous selection process, the details of which will be set out in regulations to be determined by the Scottish government. The bill makes it clear that candidates for the position will be shortlisted before an election takes place. The vetting of candidates would make it impossible for students to nominate and elect an absentee rector, as happened in March 2014 when students elected Edward Snowden.

The current proposals would also enfranchise staff and “potentially external stakeholders” in the election of a chairing member of the University Court. Currently, only students have the right to vote in a rectorial election. If the bill becomes law, the influence of students would be counterbalanced by the influence of staff and, potentially, people outside the University.

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Bute Hall during the Freshers’ Address. Credit: University of Glasgow.

Liam King, president of Students’ Representative Council, welcomed Mr Snowden’s intervention, stating: “The proposals in the Bill are a massive overreach of central government and entirely unnecessary. The Bill demonstrates little understanding of the diversity of higher education in Scotland. But most crucially it would end the influential position of rector as we know it.”

The annual Freshers’ Address was given in the Bute Hall to an audience of hundreds of new students, as well as senior University officials including Principal Anton Muscatelli.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon referred to the bill in an interview with the Glasgow Guardian earlier this year, saying that the bill would ensure: “[…] the governance of universities [is] more transparent, to introduce a case of democracy, and to make it more effective and efficient.”

When asked her opinion on the election of Edward Snowden, Sturgeon replied: “I am a great believer in openness and transparency, and I am also a great believer of people acting responsibly.”

A University of Glasgow spokesperson said: “We are fully engaged in the debate over the Higher Education Governance Bill and whilst, in principle, we support much of the reform that has been proposed, we have serious concerns regarding the proposals to take power away from universities and give it to ministers at Holyrood.

“These views have been made clear through constructive dialogue with the Scottish Government, including responding directly to calls for evidence, and through the umbrella organisation Universities Scotland.”

Earlier this year, Universities Scotland, the organisation which represents Scottish universities, raised concerns in a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s finance committee that the higher education governance bill would endanger the charitable status of universities, as there is a risk that they would be reclassified by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) as part of the public sector. It estimated that £370m of infrastructural investments, £27 million worth of tax breaks, and £53 million of philanthropic funding per year could be put at risk across the Scottish university sector if the bill is passed at Holyrood.