University Governance: will Scotland lead the way?

UCU Scotland is campaigning for the full implementation of the recommendations from a report on governance which will increase involvement of staff and students. It also urged MSPs to support reform of management in Scottish universities prior to an evidence session in the Scottish Parliament on the report.

The Review of Higher Education Governance was instigated by Michael Russell, the Cabinet Secretary for Education partly in response to UCU concerns over crisis’s in university governance and management that has led to a series of disputes across Scotland. The five man panel, including Terry Brotherstone, a former UCU Scotland President, as the STUC nominee, was given the remit to produce a report on governance reform.

UCU Scotland welcomed the report, which was published in February via a statement to the Scottish Parliament during which the Cabinet Secretary whilst welcoming it, stated that the proposals would now be subject to consultation with the sector.

  • The recommendations are intended to increase the democracy and transparency of governance and university management and in particular calls for:
  • Protection of academic freedom and institutional autonomy
  • The appointment of two nominees of both students and staff unions to the governing body and committees
  • Greater transparency in appointments and remuneration of senior management
  • Election for chairs of governing bodies
  • A broadening of the experience of governing body members and greater transparency in appointment procedures
  • An evidence base on higher education in Scotland is built up to inform further reform

Press coverage has tended to focus on the opinions of interested parties responding to particular proposals that are easier to criticise in isolation than when considered as part of a well-made, historically literate argument.

Principals have questioned the need for change given Scotland’s relative success in league tables. They have given particular weight to the dissenting letter submitted to the Cabinet Secretary separately from the Report by panel-member Alan Simpson, chair of court at the University of Stirling who dissents from the view that chairs should be elected or unions included in governance procedures.

However, Scotland’s ancient universities (and Dundee) already have a system of electing Rectors, usually designated the chair of the governing body. This is an important part of the distinctiveness of Scotland’s higher education tradition – examined along with other important historical factors in the Report’s introduction. The idea is simply that a Scottish solution to the problems of university governance in the rapidly changing world of higher education should include an enhanced role for the Rector (or otherwise designated elected chair) who will be able to claim authority from the university community as a whole and ensure that all relevant internal and external interests are given due attention in the institutional decision-making process.

Further most governing bodies have reserved places for support-staff unions as well as the informal inclusion of academic staff unions through the senate or academic board. Hence neither of these proposals are alien to Scottish institutions.

UCU is joining with NUS to push for greater democracy and transparency in the governing bodies including decisions on Principal’s pay and gained support from the Minister at UCU Scotland congress.

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