Universities challenged by a new way of thinking

Scotland's universities are set for widespread changes
Scotland's universities are set for widespread changes
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THE Scottish Government has unveiled a radical shake-up of the country’s universities and colleges.

• Education secretary Mike Russell unveils plans for a shakeup of pay and quotas

• Labour’s education spokesman Hugh Henry likened the plans to a ‘power grab’

• Scotland’s colleges currently undergoing mergers following earlier plans to save money and prevent duplication of courses

Education secretary Mike Russell said he had accepted “virtually all” the recommendations of a review of university governance, which called for elected chairs, quotas for female board members and curbs on the pay of high-earning principals.

He also outlined plans for “outcome agreements”, which the Scottish Government said would “define what it buys for its money” from universities and colleges.

The agreements are likely to put pressure on the country’s elite universities to increase the number of students from deprived backgrounds, something Mr Russell said some institutions had been “poor” at.

However, critics accused the education secretary of a “power grab”.

Addressing the Scottish Parliament yesterday, Mr Russell also set out further plans to reduce the number of Scotland’s colleges and organise them under 13 regional boards.

He said he planned to introduce legislation “at the earliest opportunity” to allow ministers to appoint the chairs of college boards.

However, he said he had already appointed 12 people to oversee mergers in different areas of the country, with the person for Fife still to be chosen. They include former first minister Henry McLeish, for the Glasgow area.

Yesterday’s statement at Holyrood followed the publication earlier this year of a report by Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, into university governance. Much of the report is unpopular with university principals, but Mr Russell would not be drawn on which parts he has accepted and which parts will be rejected.

Announcing a raft of measures, he added: “I’m also announcing the creation of an advisory forum on higher education, following Professor von Prondzynski’s report into university governance and work to be led by the chairs to develop a code of good governance.

“Strong progress has been made and the Scottish Government will continue to support our universities, colleges and training providers to deliver for our school leavers and graduates to ensure our young people have the skills, experience and ambition to support Scotland’s economic growth.”

Last year, the Scottish Funding Council, which hands out money to the further and higher education sector on behalf of the Scottish Government, said it expected a “something for something” deal after awarding a better-than-expected funding package to universities, while cutting back the money given to colleges.

Labour’s education spokesman, Hugh Henry, said Scotland’s colleges and universities were now under an “unprecedented level of ministerial control” which amounted to a “power grab”.

His Tory counterpart, Liz Smith, added: “In the university sector particularly, we know there has been a total rejection of the proposal to have elected chairs of university courts and yet the cabinet secretary seems determined to bully them into submission.

“There is absolutely no evidence that there is a fundamental problem with governance in either sector, and therefore one has to question why the Scottish Government seems to think this is a priority when there are so many other challenging educational issues at present.”

Prof von Prondzynski, said he was aware of the controversy surrounding some of his report’s recommendations, but said there was a need for greater transparency and accountability within the sector.

He said: “The view we take is that it’s very important to have democratic accountability.

“The process for determining pay should be transparent and the practice of adding bonuses should be discontinued.

“Generally speaking, the point here is that universities are not businesses and are not governed by the level of profit they make.

“Some of the things we’ve recommended are seen as controversial, but I do think there’s a degree of suspicion in the public mind as to the integrity of some processes in universities.”

Scotland’s colleges are already undergoing a period of considerable change after Mr Russell called for mergers to save money and end duplication of courses.

In recent months, institutions across the country have agreed to merge or form closer working relationships, leading to fears that students could be left with fewer choices.

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said: “The regionalisation of colleges must be for the right reasons, not simply because Mr Russell thinks he knows best.

“The Scottish Government seems to be obsessed with bigger is best, yet I don’t believe that it is best to deprive students of access to the course they want at their local college.”

John Henderson, chief executive of umbrella group Scotland’s Colleges, said: “As well as enhancing accountability, we want to see colleges equipped to deliver an enhanced student experience as a result of reform.”