A new Scottish Government education initiative is facing concerted pressure from universities and education groups.
The Higher Education Governance Bill is proposing a number of changes which would significantly alter the independence with which governing bodies run universities.
The bill, which has just finished consultation stage, is coming under heavy fire from members of the academic community for its proposals such as open elections for the chairs of governing bodies and a more diverse representation in the body.
The University of St Andrews has been the most vocal in their disapproval of ministers’ plans to increase governmental involvement in the running of universities.
Their submission talked of the risk of universities becoming a “‘political football’ by successive governments, which becomes itself a serious threat to responsible autonomy and academic freedom.”
Overall, the consultation has not been met well in higher education academic circles. Even when ideas in the legislation have been agreed upon, it has been questioned by key actors whether there is really a need to legislate on matters that are currently dealt with adequately through cooperation and understanding between universities.
In particular, principals are criticising the notion of including trade unionists on the committee.
Universities Scotland, which is a representative body of Scotland’s higher education institutions, was concerned with the undermining of the democratic nature of courts if wider membership was allowed.
Their release stated that: “The proposal to designate places on governing bodies for union representatives would diminish the democratic basis of higher education governance, by introducing individuals whose role would be to provide the staff perspective, but who had not been elected by all relevant staff.”
Edinburgh University’s Student Association (EUSA) submitted a response for consultation in which they spoke in favour of having wider membership.
Briana Pegado, EUSA President, told The Student: “Staff and students are represented on university boards that are members of many different organisations. There are joint trade unions that organise to represent the views of staff. These are members of our academic community.
“Ultimately, everyone on the board acts independently as a board member in these meetings and does not represent the interests of any external organisations; however, since trade unions are stakeholders in the academic community they should be represented.”
Speaking to The Student, Gordon Maloney, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland, responded:
“At the moment, Scottish universities are too often run by the same types of people, without real accountability to students and staff… the huge disconnect between the people who chair governing bodies and the staff and students they should be serving show what a lack of democracy can do to our institutions.
“The proposed legislation is a great opportunity to shake things up and make sure that the leaders of our education institutions are serving the interests of the whole community.
“The only way to ensure this happens is by having governing bodies that enjoy the confidence of staff and students through open and democratic elections, not through a narrow and self-selecting process.”