Scottish government backtracks over controversial university reforms

Published

Photo credit: Alastair Thomas

Photo credit: Alastair Thomas

Fraser McGowan
Editor

The cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning Angela Constance has backtracked over proposed legislation to reform the way universities are run in Scotland, amid fears of greater ministerial interference from Holyrood in universities.

Angela Constance wrote to the Scottish Parliament’s education committee saying the government intends to withdraw a number of controversial sections from the higher education governance bill, namely sections eight and 13, pertaining to the composition of governing bodies and academic boards, which universities feared would have led to their reclassification as part of the public sector and the loss of their charitable statuses.

The bill would, if passed by the Scottish parliament, still require all Scottish universities to elect the chair of Court [the governing body]; for the chair of Court to be a paid position; and for trade union members and students to be represented on Court.

Crucially, however, the Scottish government intends to proceed with proposals which would allow ministers to set out in regulations the procedure for electing a chair of Court.  

The bill specifies this will be done through public advertisement, criteria for selection, interview of candidates, and the shortlisting of candidates, before an election can be held.  This process would effectively prevent students from nominating a candidate who does not meet the criteria for selection.  Liam King, the president of the Glasgow University Students’ Representative Council, has described this proposal as “Hong Kong democracy”.

Students and staff would elect the chair of Court, unlike rectorial elections in which only students can vote.

It is understood that the elected chair of Court will coexist with the rector at universities which already elect one, namely Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, St. Andrews, and Dundee. Ms Constance said it was up to individual institutions to decide how the roles would work together. The rector currently has the right to chair Court at the ancient universities.

The replacement of the term “rector” with “elected chair” in the 1889 Universities (Scotland) Act, however, would mean that the ancient Scottish universities would no longer be legally obliged to have an elected rector.   

Ms Constance said: “While we are aware this model does not attract unanimous support, we believe it meets with our stated policy aim of embedding modern, inclusive and transparent processes”.

At Glasgow, the current rector is the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who was elected by students in March 2014.

Universities have also outlined fears over the impact the bill would have on their autonomy, because the legislation allows for some of the bill’s provisions to be changed by ministers at a later date. They have warned that ministerial interference could mean universities are reclassified as public sector bodies, jeopardising millions of pounds of private investment and their charitable status.

Ms Constance said fears over the reclassification of universities by the Office of National Statistics had led to rethink over sections eight and 13 of the bill which would have allowed ministers at Holyrood to set regulations.

She added: “Although we are confident the provisions in the Bill do not amount to government control… we have listened to what stakeholders have said in respect of certain provisions in the Bill at introduction.

“Having given the matter careful consideration, the Scottish Government is minded to put forward amendments… to remove sections eight and 13 of the Bill”.

Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservatives, welcomed the proposed removal of clauses related to ministerial interference, but said the sections “should never have been there in the first place”.

She added: “The question of how the roles of elected rectors and elected chairs will work also remains unanswered”.  

A spokesman for the University of Glasgow said: “We are pleased that the Scottish Government has looked to remove those sections of the Higher Education Governance Bill which risked the reclassification of universities. Likewise changes to the proposals on potential direct ministerial involvement in universities are also welcome. The University of Glasgow Court remains concerned about whether the proposed selection process for Chairs of Court will actually improve what the Scottish Government has already recognised as good governance and will continue to make these views known”.

Liam King, president of the Glasgow University Students’ Representative Council, said: “This bill, despite Scottish government platitudes, is a direct assault student interests at the heart of this University, and an attack on democracy. All of this from a cabinet secretary who really should know better”.