The university principals’ campaign against the very modest proposals to modernise university governance in Scotland is now bordering on the hysterical.
The Scottish Government’s Higher Education Governance (S) Bill proposes an elected chair of the governing body and two places for trade union representatives. Yes, that’s just about it. These are the devastating plans that will bring our cherished institutions crumbling down – if you believe the hype from Universities Scotland, the HE bosses mouthpiece.
Universities rightfully value their academic freedom and that is not challenged in any way by this bill. In fact, the new definition, if anything, strengthens it. However, this freedom does not exempt them from being governed properly and to be run efficiently and effectively. Better governance of banks could have prevented the collapse of those banks and the ensuing financial crisis and the same is true for charities. There must be independent oversight of how senior management operates in any organisation.
Scottish universities receive a substantial amount of public investment, with budgeted spend of over £4 billion since 2012/13. The public rightly expects the highest standards of governance and accountability to be followed by institutions in Scotland.
The response to these proposals claims that these are radical changes, that the Scottish Government is ending universities independence, that trade union members on boards would not act in the best interests of the institutions and that there is a risk to their charitable status risking millions in philanthropic giving.
These are all nothing short of absurd. A huge range of organisations, including trades unions, are subject to a range of legislation and government oversight. No one believes that the finance industry has been taken over by government because there are rules governing how it operates. There are volumes of company law on how businesses must be run. We have trading standards, environmental health, charity laws, rules surrounding the delivery of energy and telecoms, a charity regulator, utilities and telecoms regulators. Setting out rules for effective governance is not taking over. No one from the Scottish Government will have a role on university governing bodies.
Reclassification by Office of National Statistics (ONS) as a public body is the latest scare story by Universities Scotland. The ONS paper regarding reclassification of further education colleges as public bodies uses universities as a contrast to demonstrate why colleges had been wrongly categorised in the past. It makes it clear why the position of universities is different from colleges and there is nothing in the Bill that relates to those issues. For example, universities have far less government money as a proportion of income and don’t require permission to borrow.
The Scottish Charities Regulator is equally clear about what constitutes a charity and again nothing in this Bill leaves a universities open to a challenge by the regulator. The governing document of the university would have to give ministers the power to “control direct or stop it from carrying out its activities”. It doesn’t.
Universities Scotland had to dig very deep in its objections to trade union representatives – in fact as far back as the 1970’s. It is astonishing that academic leaders can be so unaware of developments in employee engagement. Modern employers understand that employee engagement in running organisations is a very effective way to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Research into partnership working in the NHS indicates just how successful employee involvement is in running large complex organisations.
As Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the head of Robert Gordon University, who led the governance review put it; Scottish universities are inherently conservative institutions which have "survived intact" since the Middle Ages. University bosses have treated their institutions as their personal fiefdoms since medieval times and what they really fear is transparency and accountability.
MSPs should ignored this hysterical misinformation campaign and bring universities, if only just a wee bit, into the real world.