University plans ‘political meddling’, says ex-principal

SCOTTISH Government proposals to reform the way higher education is governed have been branded “political meddling” by a former principal of Edinburgh University.

Holyrood has been accused of 'political meddling' due to its Higher Education plans. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Holyrood has been accused of 'political meddling' due to its Higher Education plans. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Holyrood has been accused of 'political meddling' due to its Higher Education plans. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood criticised the Higher Education Governance (Scotland Bill), insisting there was “not a lot of evidence” that ministers know best how universities should be run.

He also blasted one of the flagship proposals in the legislation, which would see elections held to appoint the chairs of university governing bodies.

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He compared this proposal to a football club holding a vote to appoint its manager.

Lord Sutherland told ITV Border’s Representing Border programme: “Would you appoint the Celtic manager on a democratic vote? Would you appoint the Scottish football manager on a democratic vote? What would be gained by that?

“What you need are people chosen for the job they have to do.

“Maybe it’s a bit vain, but I think that being in charge of a university is a skill that you acquire though experience and they’re not in that game.”

The Bill, which is currently before Holyrood, sets out to transform how Scotland’s universities are governed.

As well as the introduction of elected chairs, the legislation also aims to ensure staff, students and trade unions are all represented on university governing bodies.

It has attracted widespread criticism from the sector, with Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea - who succeeded Lord Sutherland as principal and vice chancellor of Edinburgh University - claiming it would give Holyrood ministers “far-reaching powers” over higher education.

When asked his views about the Bill, Lord Sutherland said: “I think it is political meddling to be honest and it’s a suggestion that they (the SNP government) know how universities should be run - and there is not a lot of evidence for that.”

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Ministers are “forever ... crowing about how well Scottish universities are doing in the international league tables”, he said, adding: “There’s a bit of, ‘if it ain’t bust, don’t fix it’.”

He continued: “When a politician, a cabinet secretary, wants to bring in a new law, they should be asking themselves what do they want to achieve?

“Why is it that somebody who may be a perfectly good education secretary, and may know a great deal about primary schools, is competent to say this is what we need for universities?”

Lord Sutherland claimed there is a “direction of travel” where the SNP government “want to control things”.

He added: “One of my disappointments about devolution is that it’s been a withdrawal of power into the centre rather than a pushing down of power to adequate local democratic processes, and I’m not sure this isn’t a version of the same.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The Scottish Government is clear that universities are autonomous bodies.

“Ministers seek no control but simply want to enable every voice on campus to be heard and contribute to more transparent and inclusive governance in our higher education institutions.

“We are listening to all constructive views and ideas offered as the Bill is considered by Parliament.

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“The Scottish Government has analysed risk associated with potential re-classification of Scottish higher education institutions by ONS.

“We are confident that the provisions in this Bill do not advance risk and are compliant with the indicators of government control ONS use in making classification determinations. We have written to the Education Committee to that effect.”