University challenge thrown down to Holyrood

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THE principal of one of the country’s leading universities has become the latest to question Scottish Government plans to exert more control over the higher education sector.

Professor Sir Jim McDonald, principal of Strathclyde University, said politicians should be “wary” of reducing the autonomy of universities, a system which had “served us so well in Scotland”.

His intervention comes after the body representing the chairmen of university courts said it would fight to resist plans in the “Post-16 Bill” to give ministers more control over higher ­education.

In a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s education committee, Sir Jim said further legislation would hamper the university’s “fleetness of foot”, which had allowed it to prosper through innovation.

He said: “In considering the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill, I believe the parliament should ensure that measures are ­proportionate.

“The university accepts the need for the sector to demonstrate that public investment in higher education results in positive outcomes for students, the broad economy and wider society. It believes that the necessary checks and balances are provided by the existing regulatory framework.

“Our strategy and innovative approach is due to the fleetness of foot and flexibility of approach which the principle of ‘responsible autonomy’ and appropriate accountability – already in place – provides. I do not believe parliament needs to legislate in these areas.”

He added: “The bill should reinforce the principle of responsible autonomy which has served us so well in Scotland.”

Currently making its way through parliament, the Post-16 Bill will give ministers more power over universities in ­return for generous funding ­settlements.

Universities have also been required to sign a series of outcome agreements, committing themselves to widening access for the poorest students.

Earlier this week, Alan Simpson, the chair of Stirling University’s court and the head of the body representing all Scottish chairs, criticised the Bill.

He said: “It’s a threat to the autonomy of the universities and there’s lots of evidence that shows autonomy has a major impact on success.”

The Bill will be discussed further at Tuesday’s meeting of the education committee.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “The Scottish Government values and respects our universities, the work they do and of course their ­autonomy.

“The proposals in the Bill are aimed at improving the university sector and ensuring we build on existing strengths.”