Following its pre-legislative paper on post-16 education of September 2011 – Putting Learners at the Centre – the Scottish government has now published the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill. Much of this is concerned with further education, but there are some important provisions affecting universities. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, has also confirmed his intention of introducing in due course a wider piece of legislation on higher education governance and related matters.
The new Bill addresses universities mainly by attaching new conditions to public funding channelled through the Scottish Funding Council. The first of these imposes a new condition ‘that the Council must, when making a payment to a higher education institution …, require the institution to comply with any principles of governance or management which appear to the Scottish Ministers to constitute good practice in relation to higher education institutions.’ This is a reference to the proposed code of practice to be issued in response to the recommendation made by the Review of Higher Education Governance that I chaired and which reported in January of this year. A code is currently being drafted by a working party established by the Scottish university chairs of governing bodies, and if accepted by the government this will become the source of the ‘principles of governance or management’ mentioned in the Bill.
The second relates to widening access to university by disadvantaged socio-economic groups. The government will under the terms of the Bill be able to make funding contingent on the implementation of a ‘widening access agreement’ entered into with the Funding Council. Such agreements will encourage increased participation by members of disadvantaged groups whose participation in higher education is ‘disproportionately low’.
Finally, the Bill sets a formal fee cap for students from the non-Scottish parts of the United Kingdom. This cap is not to exceed ‘the maximum amount of fees which that person would by virtue of any enactment be liable to pay if attending any higher education course provided elsewhere in the United Kingdom during that year.’ This applies to United Kingdom students only; there is no cap for non-EU students. Scottish and EU students do not pay tuition fees.
Universities Scotland – the umbrella body for the university sector – has come forward with a cautious welcome for the provisions, saying that ‘the Bill’s broad principles align with university values but that the detail of the provisions will require careful consideration’. In the political arena there has been a less positive response from opposition parties, with some politicians talking about a ‘power grab’ by the government.
On the whole I would regard these provisions as sensible. If we are to have a framework of good governance, it is reasonable to suggest that adherence to this should be a condition of public funding. Equally, the need to pursue greater participation in higher education by the disadvantaged is important, not least because the story so far is far from perfect; though equally it has to be remembered that the problem is rooted in a wider setting than just higher education.
It is hard to see these provisions as an attack on autonomy; they are in essence part of a strategy of tying public funding to good practice.