The SNP government is ready to water down controversial changes to university governance which have prompted fears of sweeping new controls for ministers.
Education secretary Angela Constance told MSPs that she is considering changes that will “amend or remove” sections of the Higher Education Governance Bill. These would currently allow ministers to change the category of members on governing bodies – and the “number of persons” appointed. University principals, leading academics and opposition leaders have warned it could undermine their independence from government and even result in the loss of their charitable status – and millions of pounds in funding as a result.
Ms Constance insisted yesterday that measures were “discreet” and dismissed claims that ministers were seeking advance control over higher education institutions.
“The bill does not seek to give ministers any new powers over the appointment of chairs or the appointment of members to committees,” she told Holyrood’s education committee.
But she added: “There is a willingness on my behalf and on behalf of the government to look in detail at those concerns and a willingness to attempt to remove the concerns which have been articulated by others.”
Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “When it comes to this bill, all stakeholders – students, staff academic, business – they’re all concerned about the aspect of ministerial control.”
Ms Smith said it would be “sensible” for the Scottish Government to remove these elements from the bill to “take out any risk whatsoever”.
Ms Constance said: “That’s being actively considered – whether we should look at amendment or removal. I think it was quite clear in Parliament that there was open-minded, careful consideration to those very matters.”
The bill has prompted a widespread backlash among the academic community. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, warned MSPs scrutinising the legislation that Scotland’s universities are gaining an international reputation for government “interference” and “suppression of critical thought”, while the unintended consequences of the bill are “scary.”
There are fears that the prospect of greater ministerial power over university governance would result in them being “re-classified” by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) as central government bodies – not charities – and would see universities lose millions of pounds in tax breaks and donations.
Ms Constance said that while she is confident the legislation complies with ONS guidelines, removal or amendment of the relevant sections is now under “active consideration”.