Leaders: Disquiet mounting over university meddling

St Andrews University have been particularly forthright in their objections. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
St Andrews University have been particularly forthright in their objections. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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SCOTLAND has enjoyed an international reputation for academic excellence stretching back centuries, with its universities some of the oldest in the world and still topping the league tables.

Scottish ancient universities are currently administered in a different way from their modern equivalents and have been granted a number of privileges as a result of their status.

They have a tripartite system of general council, university court and academic senate, laid out under the Universities (Scotland) Acts. Each also has a students’ representative council.

So it may be no surprise that Scottish Government plans to shake up the way they are run have sparked anger amongst academics and beyond.

Proposed changes to university governing bodies include choosing the chair by election involving internal and external voters, and including at least two student representatives, two directly elected staff members, two alumni representatives and two members nominated by academic and administrative trade unions.

University leaders have already accused ministers of meddling and attempting to seize power over key decisions, and they have also warned that input from trade unions could spark conflicts of interest.

But the latest move by St Andrews, the oldest of our ancient universities and one of the most prestigious, takes these objections to a new level.

To go down the road of appealing to past graduates, governors must feel their concerns are falling on deaf ears.

Of course, there is no guarantee that appealing to your alumni for support will move sufficient numbers into taking action. Do enough people actually care about this issue? We will soon find out, although it seems unlikely they will be able to harness the energies of one of their best-known graduates, a certain Alex Salmond.

No doubt ministers would argue that universities should be open and accountable and the government should have some say in how they operate if is to continue to invest in them.

But what we have ended up with is a fear that the state is “meddling”, for political purposes, in something that doesn’t need to be restructured.

So far, the Scottish Government has failed to make a convincing case for the new bill – a case that would put suspicious minds at ease.

The last thing the SNP needs in education is another problem, at a time when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has taken the bold step of staking her reputation on closing the attainment gap in our schools.

St Andrews University is not renowned as the home of political protest. Education secretary Angela Constance should be asking why such a highly-regarded institution is trying to mobilise everyone it can muster to fight the proposed changes.

Recycled memories of bottle cash

The news that the makers of Scotland’s “other” national drink will no longer hand over cash for returning their empty bottles has been met with a nationwide sigh.

But this reaction must surely be driven by a misty-eyed sense of nostalgia at the passing of a century-old tradition rather than as an expression of real disappointment.

Many of us, particularly those of a certain age, will hark back to a childhood spent raking bins and scouring building sites for glass treasure like the Scottish equivalent of India’s rag pickers.

As a species we hate change, so the announcement by AG Barr has unleashed a flood of memories of the good old days – many of them probably glorified after years spent fermenting in the recesses of our minds.

But once we shake ourselves from the reverie and open our eyes, most will realise the demise of Irn-Bru’s deposit-return system signals good news for Scotland and the planet. It shows the increasing success of efforts to cut domestic waste and help protect the environment.

Glass recycling plays a key part in the drive for a greener world, so discovering that the number of bottles being returned to Barr had dropped in recent years from 90 per cent to just half of those produced is heartening.

It shows our mindset is changing. It is proof of a growing consciousness of our impact on the environment and an increasingly strong will to do something about it.

However, it is impossible not to be left with a nagging feeling of regret at the end of an era. After all, surely this “old-fashioned” glass cashback scheme was one of the most efficient recycling schemes ever invented.