Scottish Government attacked over plans to exert more control over university education

Government plans to gain more control over higher education have come under fire from the country's university principals. Picture: TSPL
Government plans to gain more control over higher education have come under fire from the country's university principals. Picture: TSPL
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THE body representing the country’s university principals has attacked Scottish Government plans to exert more control over the sector and introduce new powers to widen access to the poorest students.

Universities Scotland said proposals to give ministers “extensive and unspecific powers” over higher education were not needed and would undermine the autonomy of individual institutions.

The body also questioned the need for new legislation to help widen access so that students from poorer backgrounds could win places at the country’s leading universities.

The comments came in a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s education committee ahead of a discussion of the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill today.

Universities Scotland said: “We do not see a need for the higher education provisions in the bill, which create new and in some cases quite extensive and unspecific powers over higher education institutions.

“Scottish HEIs (Higher Education Institutions) are already proud to be delivering important economic, social and cultural benefits in line with the Scottish Government’s aspirations for the nation’s wellbeing.

There is much the sector can achieve for Scotland when working autonomously with government.

“The bill’s purposes can already be achieved through conditions of grant and through ministerial guidance to the Scottish Funding Council, and we are concerned that the proposed legislation as currently drafted may give future administrations powers which are susceptible to misuse.”

Universities Scotland, which represents all 18 of the country’s principals, said it was “not appropriate” for ministers to be the “arbiters of what constitutes good governance”.

It added that legislation to boost the number of students from the poorest parts of society was not needed, with existing powers in place to compel institutions to widen access.

The comments were echoed by university principals giving evidence before the parliament’s education committee earlier today (Tues).

Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, principal of Edinburgh University, said: “We (universities) are very supportive of the overall intentions, but anxious that they might bring an inadvertent reduction in responsible


He later added: “We have anxiety that if future governments were given the apparatus to interfere in our governance, they might choose to do so.”

Professor Gerry McCormac, principal of Stirling University, said some of the intentions of the bill were “laudable”, but did not require legislation to happen.

Responding to claims from Labour MSP Neil Findlay that universities had “failed miserably” to widen access, Sir Timothy said:

“Universities would not accept your notion that we have failed miserably.

“This debate has to be conducted in a proper way, looking at a whole range of measures.”

Speaking after the meeting, Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith, a member of the committee, said: “There is a wide range of statistics that show very clearly that those higher education sectors around the world which achieve the highest level of success in academic, economic and social terms, are those with the greatest degree of autonomy.

“Indeed, there are many countries around the world which want to further remove the involvement of the state in universities. So why is the Scottish Government doing the reverse?

“That is a stark message for the SNP and it is little wonder why the university sector at large is questioning the need to legislate for more ministerial power.

”But Robin Parker, president of the National Union of Students (NUS) in Scotland, said more powers were needed to force universities into admitting more students from deprived backgrounds.

“When Scotland as a whole, and some Scottish universities in particular, have a terrible record on fair access, the idea that the status quo is fine doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” he said.

“We’ve always said that universities can’t do it all when it comes to promoting fair access, but they can clearly do a great deal more.

Legislation will set the national structure, that when combined with local agreements on fair access, will ensure our universities focus their efforts on choosing students with the most potential, regardless of backgrounds.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The government is, of course, listening to all points of view during this process of pre-legislative scrutiny and will consider suggestions made at the appropriate time, which is stage two.”