How should universities be run?

As readers of this blog will know, I chaired the panel set up by the Scottish government to review governance in higher education. This reported in January of this year, and the report was presented by the government to the Scottish Parliament. In presenting it, the Cabinet Secretary for education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, indicated his support for the report’s recommendations.

In fact there were 43 recommendations. Of these, 40 were unanimously supported by members of the panel. One member dissented from the remaining three. As is sometimes the case in such circumstances, much of the media attention consequently focused on these three issues, and in particular on our recommendation that the chairs of governing bodies should be elected.

However, the report had a much wider focus. Its key principles can be summarised like this: (a) that universities should be autonomous and independent, and that their staff should enjoy academic freedom; (b) that without prejudicing that autonomy, universities should join with the government in an annual discussion of national higher education strategy; (c) that each university’s processes and decision-making should be open and transparent; and (d) that universities should allow full participation by as many as possible in these processes. We recognised the success of Scotland’s higher education system and institutions, but we suggested that the sector needed to ensure that it had and retained the confidence and support of its stakeholders and the wider society. Beyond that, we argued that there should be a shared vision of higher education, and that reform would be more robust if there was more work on producing the objective evidence on which such reform could be discussed.

While there was some opposition to our proposals, it is my view that their implementation is vital. The intention behind this is to ensure that universities – the institutions vital to growth and prosperity – can secure and retain political and public support and confidence. Without this they will be at risk of decline.

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