Senate brands controversial HE Governance Bill a threat to ‘institutional autonomy’

Published

Nicola Sturgeon at Glasgow University

Andrew McIntyre
Writer

The government’s proposed Higher Education Governance Bill has drawn fresh criticism from the University of Glasgow’s Council of Senate, who have at last released an official response to the legislation.

Although the council supported proposals that aim to improve the agility of senate decisions, the response claims that giving such administrative powers to ministers “constitutes an incursion into institutional autonomy” and that academic boards should be given the final say as “it is with the academic boards that the expertise and competencies lie for taking major academic decisions on which academic standard rest”. Aside from the proposed transference of powers the Council of Senate also noted the bill’s ramifications for “traditions that are key parts of our identity and distinctiveness as a research-led global university” and that there is “no need for the level of uniformity”.

The controversial bill has been attacked by universities across Scotland for its proposed changes that would incorporate universities and other centres of higher education into the public sector, as well as compelling universities to relinquish certain administrative and financial powers. Such powers would instead fall under the remit of government ministers.

Th Scottish Government proposed in April a complete overhaul of higher education governance amidst claims that Scottish universities should be held more accountable given the significant sum of public funds that they currently receive. The bill would allow Scottish ministers to decide how senior figures on university courts are to be appointed and how many student and trade union representatives will be present, as well as modernising how administration works within these courts. Many universities have already spoken out against the bill claiming that such strict governmental control over finances could lead to a reduction in philanthropic activities and negatively affect their global academic reputation, while Pete Downes, principal of the University of Dundee, claims the proposals would “damage universities’ contribution to Scotland’s success”. 

One such tradition that could be under threat is the student elected position of university rector. The largely ceremonial position is a historic staple of many ancient Scottish universities and at the University of Glasgow it has been used in the past as a means of the student body expressing their political activism on a global stage. The current university Rector, famed whistle-blower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, criticised the bill itself during his annual speech to first year students on the 14th of September insisting that it “represents a real threat to the financial and academic independence of the university system of the oldest universities in Scotland” and that the proposed changes “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”.

The bill also intends to redefine the legal definition of academic freedom in the hopes of “strengthening it and making explicit the freedom to develop and advance new ideas and innovative proposals”. This new definition has yet to be determined, but the University of Glasgow’s Council of Senate has recommended that the definition provided by the Irish Universities Act 1997 be considered as a replacement. The Act defines academic freedom as a member of staff’s ability to “put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions, and shall not be disadvantaged, or subject to less favourable treatment by the university, for the exercise of that freedom”.

In spite of the largely negative response, ministers continue to push the Bill through parliament leaving many Scottish universities unsure of their future governance while also fearing the loss of their individuality and independence as ancient and historic institutions.