Scottish Government wants to ‘control’ universities

The Scottish Government is “hell bent on meddling” in the running of Scotland’s universities and could undermine their quality of education, MSPs have been warned.

Angela Constance: Dismissed concerns. Picture: Jon Savage

Opposition parties said there is no evidence to support the need for controversial changes which will open up governing chairs at institutions to wider elections. There are fears the changes could make the posts more political and stop high- calibre candidates from coming forward.

Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith told MSPs at Holyrood the diversity and autonomy of universities gives them a “unique role” in academic excellence and “world-class research.”

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She warned: “This is very serious matter, because it seems that the Scottish Government is hell bent on meddling in governance and exerting more and more control over the sector.

“And to what end? Where is the evidence that the current governance structures are in any way having a detrimental effect on the educational experience of students, on academic standards and on the ability of the institutions to attract best staff?”

Government plans to have chairs of court elected by a wider electorate than the court itself have prompted concerns.

“Why should the composition of senates or academic bodies be a matter for any government,” Ms Smith asked. Plans to “force” institutions to include representatives from particular interests groups would also “undermine the independence of the governing council.”

Ms Smith warned that the changes could leave universities “in thrall to government and its restrictive practices.”

But the concerns were dismissed by education secretary Angela Constance.

“We want to work with universities to ensure that their governance arrangements are always evolving, modern transparent and inclusive,” she said.

“The autonomous nature of our universities has many benefits. However, in return for substantial investment, the Scottish Government wants to help ensure all parts of the university community have their voices heard in a more consistent way.”

Bodies like the University and Colleges Union have called for improvements in the way that institutions are governed.

“Greater inclusivity and more transparent governance can only help our universities to develop and adapt to the challenges that they face in the future,” Ms Constance told the Parliament.

Labour education spokesman Iain Gray backed the changes being proposed and insisted they will not “compromise the academic autonomy” of universities. “We do support the election of chairs, although there is much work to be done on the governance of that, greater diversity on ruling bodies and direct representation for trade unions for governing bodies,” he said.

“Autonomy yes, but responsible autonomy. Ancient institutions, yes, but redesigned for the modern world as they must indeed be, in order to maintain their crucial and pivotal role at the centre of our nation.”