Angela Constance: We’ll ensure students are heard

Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning writes for Scotland on Sunday. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning writes for Scotland on Sunday. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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BARELY a week after the anniversary of last year’s referendum, it’s worth reflecting on a key piece of legislation being considered by the Scottish Parliament.

The principles of the Higher Education Governance Bill are consistent with where a modern Scotland sits in 2015. It may feel like a distant memory now, but the referendum will go down in history as a moment that changed Scottish life forever.

The Scottish Government lowered the voting age to 16, giving thousands more young people the chance to take part in decisions that affect them. And they voted in their droves.

We are determined to harness this democratic energy, to put it to work in the day-to-day decisions made by and for our communities.

By setting participation as one of the three key priorities for this government, we set ourselves the challenge of finding ways of handing decision-making powers back to communities. This is very much aligned with the Scottish Government’s commitment to a fairer, more inclusive Scotland: one which better reflects the diversity in our society and where everyone gets to have their say.

The Higher Education Governance Bill aims to reflect these priorities and values by strengthening community – in this case, staff and students – participation in decision-making. At its heart, this bill seeks to enable every voice on campus to be heard.

Our universities are absolutely outstanding. Viewed as world-leading around the globe, we have four institutions in the world’s top 200, more than any other country per head of population apart from Switzerland.

We have shown our commitment to the sector, again investing more than £1 billion via the Scottish Funding Council in 2015-16 while also challenging institutions through outcome agreements to deliver excellent teaching, research and make accelerated progress on achieving greater equity, diversity and inclusiveness within their institutions.

We want a modern and accountable framework of governance for universities to work within and for the public to have total confidence in how they operate. The 2012 Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland, led by Prof Ferdinand von Prondzynski, made recommendations for reform and this work has informed the bill. Central to Scottish Government objectives is the introduction of a new and transparent process for the appointment of chairs of court in universities and other higher education institutions.

I see elected chairs of court as an important new means of enabling all of our higher education institutions to appoint their leaders in a more transparent and inclusive way.

I am aware that not everyone supports this bill or is convinced by its proposals on elected chairs. Some have expressed concern about the bill’s potential impact on the role of rectors, on the autonomy of our higher education institutions and whether changes will adversely affect their ability to raise their own funds. I want to provide reassurance on all these points.

Rectors play an important role in the “ancient” institutions, raising the profile of the sector and representing students. The Scottish Government is clear that there is no intention at all to abolish the position of rector.

The Scottish Government will not be involved in the appointment of an individual chair at any institution so the suggestion of government exerting greater direct control over the sector is just wrong. Higher education institutions will remain autonomous. Nothing in the bill will require universities to come to government for permission to take decisions.

The Scottish Government is confident that the bill will not prompt re-classification of autonomous higher education institutions as public bodies and their ability to raise funds. In fact, in its development, we carefully examined the bill’s provisions to ensure that they complied with the current indicators of government control used by the ONS who make such det­erminations.

The principles of the bill are consistent with a fairer, more engaged Scotland. «

Angela Constance is Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning