Concern over Higher Education bill

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Your leader and article (21 August) claim that the University of St Andrews is urging its past graduates to lobby the Scottish Parliament in opposition to the Higher Education Governance Bill. This is not in fact the case.

The appeal to our alumni came from the Business Committee of the General Council, which is a body separate from the university, representing its 40,000 graduates around the world.

It is, however, correct that, like most other higher education institutions in Scotland, we have significant concerns about the implications of the proposed legislation. We fully endorse the aims of having governance structures that are open, transparent, accountable and inclusive.

To this effect, we embraced the Scottish Code of Higher Education Governance, introduced in 2013, and have used this to deliver a governance framework that ensures a strong voice for staff and students alike, supported by independent external expertise and scrutiny, whilst recognising the particular traditions and needs of our university. Our concern is that these aims risk being undermined, rather than strengthened, by the measures proposed in the legislation.

Our Court already includes representatives elected by academics, non-academic staff and students. The consequences of the Bill could require us to reduce the number of student representatives on our Court from three to two. It could require us to replace the elected non-academic staff representative with trades union nominees, disenfranchising the vast majority of staff who are not members of a trade union. Our Senior Governor is appointed through open competition, and following open advertisement, in accordance with the good practice guidelines set out in the code.

But the suggestion that there should be contested elections for Chairs of Court goes against basic principles of good governance – that the chair of a board, whether of a university, a non-departmental public body or a private company, should have the confidence of the entire board, not just the faction that got the most votes.

And by removing the core function of the Rector, elected by the entire student body as a champion of their interests, it undermines an ancient tradition with a thoroughly modern outlook.

The measures contained in the bill give ministers the ability to make further future changes to the composition of University Courts and Senates without the safeguard of full parliamentary scrutiny. This opens the door to greater future political influence and control, and, in the words of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, represents “a level of governmental intervention that is entirely inappropriate for an autonomous sector”.

This puts at risk universities’ ability to act as sources of independent thinking, and also potentially our status as a charity and our classification by the Office for National Statistics as a non-profit institution. This would not only be damaging to our academic standing in an increasingly competitive international environment, but would also jeopardise the entrepreneurial activity we undertake and the value we contribute to the Scottish economy.

St Andrews receives less than one quarter of our total funding from the Scottish Government, and a recent study demonstrated that we deliver over £12 economic benefit for every £1 we are given by the Scottish Government.

We make a net contribution of £485 million to the Scottish economy annually and directly support almost 9,000 Scottish jobs. We are able to do this because we are autonomous, not in spite of it.

Alastair Merrill

Vice-Principal 
(Governance and Planning)

University of St Andrews

l This letter originally appeared in yesterday’s edition of The Scotsman with four extra paragraphs added to the end in error, containing criticism of the Scottish Government and Police Scotland. These additional lines belonged to another letter from an unconnected author and were added to Mr Merrill’s as a result of human error in the newspaper production process. We apologise unreservedly for the mistake and any embarrassment or confusion caused.