Bill ‘threatens independence of Scots universities’

Prof von Prondzynski, below, says the changes could create uncertainty about political interference in universities. Pic Ian Rutherford

Prof von Prondzynski, below, says the changes could create uncertainty about political interference in universities. Pic Ian Rutherford

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THE leading academic behind a contentious overhaul of university governance has raised concerns that aspects of the plan could be seen as “compromising” the institutions’ independence.

Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, who chaired the Scottish Government’s review of higher education governance, now says all MSPs at Holyrood should have a greater say in the changes.

Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski. Picture: Andrew Cowan

Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski. Picture: Andrew Cowan

He will tell MSPs at Holyrood this week that the plans, which would see SNP ministers impose the changes through regulation, could “create uncertainty” over the extent of political influence.

The Scottish Government’s proposals, which were based on his review findings, have prompted anger in academic circles. University leaders warn they will undermine their academic independence, lead to millions in funding being lost and jeopardise the role of rector.

Von Prondzynski says he remains committed to the proposals he set out in 2012 and says the “substantive intentions” of the bill are appropriate. But the influence of ministers, which has led to major concern in the academic community, is called into question by the academic in a submission to the committee.

“It is my view that it would be preferable for parliament to legislate directly for the key measures proposed, including the appointment/election of governing body chairs, rather than to leave the implementation to ministerial regulations,” he states.

“This particular method would create uncertainty about future governance and could be seen as compromising institutional autonomy.”

He adds: “It remains vital that universities are not classified as state bodies and do not have their charitable status compromised.”

University leaders claim the current plans would hand ministers widespread controls and leave them classed as central government bodies. This would mean they lose their charitable status and the tens millions of pounds in tax breaks which go with it.

Universities receive more than £1 billion in public cash – about a third of their total funding – every year and the overhaul is aimed at making them more accountable and representative.

The changes have the support of unions, student leaders and the main Labour opposition at Holyrood.

Education secretary Angela Constance has said the measures in the bill are “consistent with a modern Scotland”. “The Scottish Government wants to strengthen staff and student participation in decision-making at higher education institutions,” she said.

“This bill is not about ministers taking a direct role in the life of our autonomous institutions, but rather enabling ­every voice on campus to be heard.”

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