SNP politicians not only give me a lot of unintended inspiration for this blog, they often alert me to issues I hadn’t thought about deeply before. I was aware of some concern by academics and others about the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill going through Holyrood at the moment, but I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to it. Then I saw this:
Twitter’s a cruel medium. SNP MSP Mr Mason seems to have been engaged in an exchange with people that at least touched on higher education and may have contained many subtleties I’m unaware of. But he uses his 140 characters here to make a definitive statement. And it prompted me to find out a bit more about what’s going on.
Here are the government’s main proposals, taken from the explanatory notes that accompanied publication of the draft bill:
- ministers will be able to stipulate through regulations how the process for appointing a chair of a governing body should be conducted, as well as their remuneration and allowances
- governing bodies must include two directly elected staff members; one nominated by a trade union representing academic staff; one by a trade union representing support staff; two student members nominated by a students’ association; and two nominated by a graduates’ association
- academic boards must not consist of more than 120 members. Staff and student members must be elected by the constituency they represent. Elected members must comprise more than 50% of the total membership of the academic board. And at least 10% of the board must be made up of elected student members
- there are also proposals that academic freedom should be strengthened.
The Guardian recently published a good summary of the controversy that surrounds these proposals. It includes brief statements for and against what is proposed.
The universities, represented by Universities Scotland, are opposed to much of the Bill. They have asked the question ‘What is the problem the Bill seeks a solution to?’ and I’m not sure they’ve received a clear answer. They point out that they already operate under a Scottish Code of Good HE [Higher Education] Governance which they developed from a UK code and was published as recently as July 2013.
At this point, we should return to John Mason’s tweet, if only to dismiss it. His tweet contains one misrepresentation and a lie. The misrepresentation is that the current issue is about modernisation generally: it is not, it is specifically about governance. The lie is that universities have ‘refused … voluntarily’ to modernise. The code of governance is proof that his claim is incorrect. His final assertion, ‘So government must act’ brings us straight back to the question of what the problem is that the Bill is trying to solve.
For the life of me I can’t see it. Not only can I not see it but I am sceptical of the government’s detailed prescription for governance.
Note how they attempt to define in detail the make-up of a university’s governing body and how some ‘stakeholders’ are included – students, trade unions, staff – but not others. What about, say, the education authority of the area concerned, local FE colleges, the CBI, chambers of commerce, the third sector, and for specialised institutions the professional body (-ies) involved? I don’t intend to be prescriptive about the possibilities but nor should the government, especially when the stakeholders they define are groups that they have been trying to get close to politically and who just happen to be voters.
This is still very much a live issue. The Education and Culture Committee has yet to complete its consideration of the Bill and is hearing evidence from the cabinet secretary for education Angela Constance on 10 November. Meantime, having giving evidence already, Universities Scotland wrote to the government on 26 October on behalf of all its members reiterating a number of their concerns. They are especially concerned about 1. whether the government’s proposals would affect the official Office for National Statistics (ONS) classification of Scottish universities so they become defined as being within ONS’s ‘General Government’ category and are deemed to be ‘controlled’ by government and 2. the impact on their charitable status.
The government say they have detailed advice on these questions but the universities have yet to see it all. Until they do we should remember that the SNP track record on ‘advice’ is not good. They failed to take publically-given advice on the VAT status of national police and fire & rescue services and are now literally paying the price. During the referendum they said they had advice on EU accession for an independent Scotland but were unable to produce it.
Meantime, other controversies hover around Scottish higher education:
- the pressure brought on some university principals to stay silent during the referendum campaign
- the cost of ‘free’ higher education tuition and its ineffectiveness in persuading young people from poorer backgrounds to take up university places
- the levels of debt incurred by students compared with SNP promises to eliminate it
- the disproportionate numbers of EU students (funded by the Scottish government) at Scottish universities compared to Scottish students taking up equivalent places elsewhere in the EU
- the overall level of government funding, which has driven the better or better-known universities to seek more (high) fee-paying students from elsewhere in the UK and abroad.
All this is set within the wider context of centralisation and control the SNP have pursued across a variety of public services and institutions, not only the police and fire & rescue services but also for example economic development, local authorities (through the council tax freeze), the ‘named person’ legislation for children, the merging of further education colleges, and the proposal to absorb the Scottish part of British Transport Police into Police Scotland. Mr Mason’s ‘So Government must act’ fits nicely into the mind-set that produced this list.
The title of this post posed the provocative question Are the SNP going to wreck Scotland’s universities? According to the latest Times Higher Education survey, Scotland has five universities in the world’s top 200. It’s not a bad record for a small country, although it has to be conceded that Scottish universities draw much of their strength from the wider UK higher education community and from UK research funding. I wouldn’t be foolish enough to claim that the SNP are going to wreck the record of Scottish universities but the omens are not good. I hope the current Bill before parliament does not tip our universities in the wrong direction.