Leader: Nothing academic about anger in universities

There has been deep concern about the Higher Education Bill. Picture: TSPL
There has been deep concern about the Higher Education Bill. Picture: TSPL
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Government’s promise to ‘amend or remove’ contentious parts of the higher education bill are welcome, if conceded under pressue

There has been an enormous outpouring of opposition from Scotland’s respected academic institutions to the Scottish Government’s plans to overhaul the governance of the higher education sector.

Deep concern about the Higher Education (Governance) Bill has been expressed by university principals, academics and opposition politicians amongst many others.

In the spirit of generosity, perhaps it can be argued that the Scottish Government ministers launched their plans with the best of intentions.

But even if one is prepared to give ministers the benefit of the doubt, the strength of the critical response to their plans strongly suggests that SNP administration has taken the wrong approach on this one.

Over the past few weeks and months, academics have outlined their fears of ministerial interference undermining Scottish universities’ long established independence.

Those fears have arisen as a result of plans to give the Scottish Government the power to decide how senior figures on university courts are appointed, including the election of chairs and how long they are allowed to serve.

Another concern articulated by universities is that the bill endangers around £1 billion of their funding, because it creates such close links with the state that it endangers their charitable status.

Should anyone be in doubt about the severity and unprecedented nature of these warnings, they should remember that at least two of Scotland’s most venerable academic institutions (Edinburgh and St Andrews universities) took the drastic step of urging their alumni to protest against the plans. They should also take a look at the evidence to Holyrood’s education committee by Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell a few weeks back.

Dame Jocelyn, an astrophysicist who was elected the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, told MSPs the bill could have “some unintended consequences which for me are really scary’’.

She added: “Starting about the time of the referendum but picking up momentum now with this legislation, when I am abroad I find people saying to me ‘What’s happening to the Scottish university? What’s the government there doing?’ with the implication that there is interference.’’

Faced with this criticism, it seems increasingly clear that the Scottish Government would be badly advised to stubbornly stick to its guns.

For that reason at least, the remarks made yesterday by the education secretary Angela Constance should be welcomed.

Ms Constance told yesterday’s meeting of the committee that will “amend or remove” sections of the Higher Education (Governance) Bill.

“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,” Ms Constance said.

Mercifully, the education secretary seems to acknowledge that there is a problem. It is not, however, a problem that can be solved with the odd tweak here and there. A solution will only be found if politicians can work with principals and academics to find common ground.