Comment: University code will see Scotland lead again

Edinburgh University Old College Quadrangle. Picture: Greg Macvean
Edinburgh University Old College Quadrangle. Picture: Greg Macvean
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The issue of university governance is an important one, and merits a serious discussion.

I chaired a steering group that was asked to consider the wider recommendations of a group led by the principal of Robert Gordon University, Professor Ferdinand Von Prondzynski, in his review of higher education governance. My remit, and that of my group, was to produce a new code of governance.

As we started, we acknowledged a wide acceptance that the current system in Scotland is good, and fit for purpose. In shorthand, there is no specific problem that a new code is designed to fix. But Prof von Prondzynski challenged universities to go further, and they should do so.

The new code will drive progress on the diversity of governing bodies. It will give students and staff new rights to be part of key decisions. It will require the highest standards of transparency, including in relation to pay.

Before we started drawing up the code, we opened a comprehensive consultation; our team visited 19 institutions, holding 78 meetings and engaging directly with 360 people drawn largely from students, staff and lay members of university governing bodies. We did so for two reasons. First, students and staff must be at the heart of the institutions of the universities at which they study and work. That is an important principle.

Second, we wanted to produce a code that is built on the evidence we heard directly from our “constituents”; after all, a code that is underpinned by evidence is a good deal more credible and enforceable than one that is not.

The code remains in draft form, and a further round of consultation remains under way that will almost certainly influence the final version.

The steering group believes that when the final code is implemented, which could be as soon as August, Scotland’s university sector will take a significant progressive step, building substantially on historic good governance across the sector.

Ferdinand Von Prondzynski himself, on the day we published the draft, said that the code “very much meets the objectives” he had in mind, and “could be a model for other higher education systems”. Once again, Scotland can sit proudly ahead of its international competitors, having taken steps to strengthen the role of students and staff in selecting university chairs and principals and holding them to account.

Academic freedoms will be protected, people from diverse social backgrounds will be recruited and remuneration decisions will be more transparent and accountable. Furthermore, we have adopted a recommendation by student leaders, under which universities will have to set and publish goals in relation to gender and equality and membership of governing bodies.

The code will have teeth. Universities will have to comply as a condition of public funding. I firmly believe that a new regime of governance, beginning in August, will make our universities more representative, democratic and accountable than ever before.

• Lord Smith of Kelvin is chair of the Steering Group on the Scottish Code of Good Higher Education Governance