Why you should care about the higher education governance bill

Published

holyrood

Alastair Thomas & Fraser McGowan
Editors

The higher education governance bill: it’s about as exciting as it sounds. In layman’s terms, it’s the Scottish government’s proposal for how Scottish universities should be run, and by whom. To us, students of a Scottish university, it will make very little difference to our daily lives.  We’ll still go to class (or not, depending on how badly hangovers affect you); we’ll still feign an interest in medieval death culture or thermodynamics; Ameer will still send you too many emails about refreshers’ week; and we’ll still aimlessly wonder whether or not an arts degree is a waste of time after all. We won’t lie to you: there is a strong case for you not to care about the higher education governance bill. On the face of it, it’s nothing more than a superficial management restructuring, led by the Scottish government. If you scratch the surface a little deeper, however, you’ll find it’s about power, who has it, and how they intend to use it. It might not be interesting – it’s not – but it’s certainly important.

Angela Constance, the cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, is the woman charged with reforming Scottish higher education. She is a Glasgow graduate, and a former president of the Students’ Representative Council. You would be forgiven for thinking that she, given her experience as a student here, might be well qualified to navigate the quandary of higher education governance. She knows the interests that have to be balanced, and she knows the consequences of the power grab that will ensue if she gets it wrong. It’s surprising, then, that she has mismanaged the whole issue in such a spectacular fashion. With all the grace of an elephant on an ice rink, Ms Constance has successfully created chaos and confusion where there needed to be clarity and consensus.

If her public declarations are to be believed, she wants to make Scottish universities, which are recipients of large amounts of public money, more accountable. With regard to rectorships, far from abolishing rectors at the universities in Scotland which already have one (of which Glasgow is one of five), she wants to extend the democratic principle of electing a chair of Court to all Scottish universities. So far, so reasonable, right? That’s only half the story though. In other parts of the bill, regulations for appointing people to governing bodies and academic boards, known as Court and Senate at Glasgow, were to be determined by Scottish ministers after the bill had become law. Universities were, rightly, worried that this might lead to a reclassification by the Office for National Statistics as part of the wider public sector, a loss of charitable status, and with it, millions of pounds worth of donations. Ms Constance appears to have listened: the Scottish government is ‘minded’ to drop sections eight and 13 of the bill. The Scottish higher education establishment can breath a deep sigh of relief.

For students, however, there isn’t so much to be welcomed. OK, we grant you, the immediate threat to millions of pounds of charitable donations has gone away, and that benefits us all presumably. The Scottish government, however, wants to create elected chairs of Court (the powerful governing body, analogous to a board of directors) at every Scottish university. At Glasgow, we already have an elected chair of Court in the form of the (absentee) rector, Edward Snowden. Elected chairs of Court, however, the term which the Scottish government wants to use to replace the term ‘rector’, will be elected by staff and students. It doesn’t take a cynical fourth year arts student to know that the interests of staff and students are not always the same; how is the ‘elected chair of Court’ meant to represent, and vote in, the interests of both if the interests of staff and students conflict? It gets worse: you, an ordinary student, won’t even be able to nominate a candidate for election. There will be a selection criteria, an interview, and a short list of candidates before an election can take place. The democratic principle that Ms Constance seeks to extend suddenly looks a bit more ominous.

So are rectors going to be replaced with an elected chair of Court? Angela Constance says no. She’s removing the legal requirement for Glasgow University, and others, to have a rector, but it’s up to universities to decide how the rector and the elected chair of court will work together. What she has in mind is a sort of job share. The law will require there to be a an elected chair, but an elected rector would become something of an optional extra, which would last only as long as the university in question is willing to tolerate the presence of two elected representatives on Court. Angela Constance might not intend to abolish rectors, but she is certainly putting them at risk in favour of an elected chair.
Sir Anthony Seldon, the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, says that too many top universities see students as ‘necessary nuisances’, and anybody who has studied at one will know how true that can seem at times. The rector is one of the few things we have to mitigate against those in power who are of that opinion. The long-term future of the office is far from secure if the bill becomes law. University managers might be relieved, but that isn’t to say that those of us that care about having a rector, elected exclusively by students of this University, shouldn’t be worried.