I am a journalist, so my default position is to question any information I get. I was therefore more than surprised to find that Queen Margaret University (QMU) was prepared to appoint me to its governing body, the university court.
I knew all about universities from the outside, being a higher education specialist, and while I could see that QMU was a thriving, go-ahead institution, I retained a professional scepticism about what the court would be like. I reckoned the membership would be male, pale and stale, doing little more than rubber-stamp management diktat. Well, they were about to get a shock: I don’t do rubber-stamping. As it turned out, I was the one who got the shock.
I found myself in the middle of a group of bright, enthusiastic, thorough, dedicated people who certainly weren’t afraid to ask tough questions.
There are staff and student court members with a majority, like myself, independent, with a wide range of expertise and life experience. And I was far the only woman.
The first thing the university did was send me on a course run by the leadership foundation for higher education on how to be as effective a governor as possible. I learned that court members have an unambiguous responsibility to reassure themselves that the management strategy is fit for purpose. They are there to offer a constructive challenge to the executive and the leadership foundation offered the following advice:
•Noses in and fingers out.
•Be sufficiently informed to be involved, but not so involved as to be interfering.
•The ideal relationship between governors and management is informal and friendly but not cosy.
And that is exactly how the QMU court operates. We have lively, intense, robust meetings where we scrutinise the university’s objectives, ensure its financial sustainability, and approve its strategic plan.
QMU goes from strength to strength. In December, we had our best ever results in the UK-wide research excellence framework, with more than 58 per cent of our overall research rated as world-leading or internationally excellent. In speech and language sciences, we were rated as top in Scotland and second in the UK. The Times Higher Education publication singled us out as a “notable riser”.
The university is an invaluable resource for the region and country. Just before Christmas, I attended the launch of the university’s Scottish centre for food development and innovation, whose expertise in nutrition and biological sciences is supporting our food and drink industries. And earlier this month I had the thrill of being at the first graduation ceremony of QMU’s Children’s University which helps East Lothian schoolchildren aged between seven and 14 to become confident learners and broaden their horizons.
The Scottish Government is currently consulting on a proposed Higher Education governance bill aimed at enhancing and improving governance in higher education.
I don’t know a single court member who would argue against the idea that governance needs to evolve continuously. While university governance already delivers at the highest standards, we all want to see it continuing to be enhanced and improved.
But why is there a need for legislation?
For more than a year, our higher education institutions have been operating the Scottish code of good higher education governance, which ensures that what we do is accountable, transparent and inclusive.
I serve on QMU’s nominations committee and equality and diversity committee and one of our prime concerns is to make sure that the court has as diverse a membership as possible, with no barriers because of gender, ethnicity or disability, based entirely on candidates’ merit.
My years of involvement in higher education have also taught me the importance of the autonomy of universities.
This is a principle that must be valued and protected. And in the case of university governance, institutions themselves make certain that their court members are critical friends.
I am one of around 200 independent members across the sector, drawing on our external experience to test proposals and question strategic direction.
• Olga Wojtas is an independent member of the governing body of Queen Margaret University Edinburgh and guest author for Universities Scotland.