Higher education legislation: benefit or peril?
Shortly after I took up my post in 2011 as Principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, I was asked by the Scottish Government to chair a review of higher education governance. At the time a friend remarked to me that this would be a great way to learn fast all about the Scottish system; and a great way also to be hated by everyone within that system. I cannot say whether the latter turned out to be true, but it is certainly the case that recommendations on governance will not always please everyone.
The review that I chaired reported in early 2012, and we summarised the purpose of our work as follows:
‘It is not just a question of assuring the integrity and transparency of processes, it is a question of allowing society to protect its broader investment in education, knowledge and intellectual innovation in a way that makes the most of a long Scottish tradition adapted to the needs of the 21st century world.’
In this spirit we made a number of recommendations for reform that might maintain public confidence in the sector. We suggested that these reforms would be more easily secured through a code of good governance for Scotland, and also with the help of ‘a statute for Scotland’s higher education sector setting out the key principles of governance and management.’
Subsequently the chairs of the governing bodies of Scottish universities adopted a code of good governance which addressed some (but not all) of the review’s recommendations. And now the Scottish Government has initiated a consultation on a proposed Higher Education Governance Bill. This suggests that new legislation may cover six topics that were the subject of recommendations in the higher education review: (i) transferring the role of the Privy Council in approving university governance instruments to a new Scottish committee; (ii) creating a new statutory definition of academic freedom; (iii) clarifying the role of Principals of the universities; (iv) setting out procedures for electing a shortlist of candidates for chairs of governing bodies, and selecting the successful candidate through an election; (v) ensuring that governing bodies include staff, student and alumni representatives; and (vi) clarifying the role and composition of academic boards or Senates.
In bringing forward the proposals, the government has correctly identified those issues set out in the governance review that would require legislation in order to be implemented. If enacted in the form suggested in the consultation document, the new statute would secure a system of higher education built on institutional autonomy and academic freedom, a system that recognises that universities need to be independent but that they must not be disconnected from wider public views and concerns.
It is already clear that the proposed legislation will not be supported by everyone. Trade unions have welcomed the consultation, but Universities Scotland (representing Principals) has issued a statement suggesting a fair degree of apprehension.
In his Foreword to the consultation document, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, underlined the government’s commitment to institutional autonomy:
‘The Scottish Government does not want to increase Ministerial control over universities, but support them to refine their governance systems, enabling an evolution that can enhance their important contribution to Scotland and the advancement of its people and economy.’
In a modern system of higher education, governments and universities need to balance the important requirement of institutional autonomy with the recognition that institutions also serve a number of public purposes and need to maintain the support of key stakeholders. This is not an easy thing to achieve, and the government’s consultation document will rightly prompt debate. But right now I think that the proposals, together with other instruments such as the code of good governance, have got this balance largely right.