Analysis: Autonomy must be kept as a core value

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IT’S right that Mike Russell’s statement acknowledges the university sector’s responsibility for developing a new Scottish code of governance.

Multiple studies have shown that the most successful university systems – the ones which generate the most benefit for their economies and societies – are those which enjoy the greatest autonomy.

This is at the heart of the “Magna Charta Universitarum”, the Europe-wide declaration of universities’ freedoms and responsibilities. We’ve defined this in Scotland as “responsible autonomy” – we understand our responsibility for using public funding in a way which helps to build a fairer and more prosperous society, and we know we will do that best if our autonomy is maintained as a core value.

The von Prondynski review set out a range of affirmations and challenges for the sector. Some of these are matters of public policy or of legislation, and it’s important that universities and government keep talking to find ways forward which will genuinely improve the effective and responsive governance of Scottish universities. We welcome the recognition in the minister’s statement that this will be an evolutionary process which may include adaptation of the original proposals. Let’s use the time between now and proposed legislation to make sure we are getting things right.

And let’s use the sector’s leadership on the things which are, quite properly, part of our autonomous self-regulation to make sure that we develop a distinctive new Scottish code of governance which builds on the best of existing practice.

Across academia, business and the public sector we are all contributors to the common good and we need to keep building on our complementary roles in this collective endeavour. Let’s make the proposed advisory forum work in a way which helps this.

We start from an amazing position of strength as recognised in the minister’s statement – five of the world’s top 200 universities, the highest graduate employment and remuneration levels in the UK, our standing as an international powerhouse of research and magnet for talent. We must work hard over the coming months to ensure that any changes to university governance are changes which will genuinely improve our contribution to Scotland’s success.

• Alastair Sim is the director of Universities Scotland which represents university principals.