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Higher Education Governance Bill draws criticism throughout academia

ByEthan DeWitt

Sep 23, 2015

A Scottish government bill seeking to standardize the way universities govern themselves has drawn a chorus of criticism from university principals, rectors, and students associations.

The bill, titled the Higher Education Governance Bill, would impose a set of regulations for how universities across the country could run themselves, with sections imposing regulations on Senate structures, rector elections, and statutory freedom.

Among the provisions included in the bill’s final draft is a limit on university senates, capped at 120 members; a provision mandating the election of an approved list of rectors; and a section that would allow the government to impose changes through secondary legislation.

The bill is intended to make Scottish universities more efficient and responsive “by enabling more transparent and inclusive participation in higher education governance”.

But each of its main provisions has been the target of criticism by various members of academia in recent weeks.

Students unions oppose the pre-approval requirement by the Scottish Government for rectorial candidates, which they say is un-democratic.

Rectors object to the size limits on senates, arguing the number is arbitrary and inflexible for larger universities.

Universities reject most of the provisions, but in particular the clause the allows for secondary legislation to
Another concern is that greater control by Holyrood could undermine universities’ claims to charitable status. Losing that status could jeopardise tens of millions of pounds in grant money from charities, universities claim. The Scottish government has rejected claims it would impose that level of control.

Above all, universities argue that their very institutional freedom is at risk.

“The individual’s academic freedom depends upon the collective and institutional independence of the institution within which that individual freedom is protected and nourished,” a submission to Parliament from the University of Edinburgh read.

“This Bill threatens the ability of higher education institutions to provide that,” it continued.

It concluded: “We do not think that there has been any compelling explanation of what the problem is that needs to be fixed here.”

The current wave of opposition escalated as the bill entered its consultation period. Various institutions ranging from Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, to Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA) have submitted consultations. Many of the suggestions have been highly critical.

“At first sight, the government bill seemed to have a lot of problems,” Steve Morrison, newly-inaugurated rector of the University of Edinburgh told The Student.

In particular, Morrison objected to the rectorial election process, in which a preselection committee would approve candidates running it, comparing it to controversial election procedures in Hong Kong.

“That’s just not a free election,” he told The Student.

He also argued the wording allowed “the Government to use secondary legislation to continually modify its rules about how universities are run.”

“We’re running ourselves, and our academic standing and international attractiveness could be affected if it appeared the local government could change the rules at any time. ”

“It all seemed a bit clumsy and intrusive”, he concluded.

Not all parties are as severe. EUSA President Jonny Ross-Tatam expressed broad support. EUSA opposes the control over the rectorial selections but stands behind the majority of provisions.

“I think some of the arguments are hyperbolic about where this thing leads,” Ross-Tatam told The Student.

“We think Edinburgh has a good system. We think the opportunity to expand that out to all universities is a good one.”


Image: The Higher Education Governance Bill has been put to consultation by Holyrood.  Many have written in.

Image credit: Colin, Wikipedia Commons

By Ethan DeWitt


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