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This is real progress in the reform of universities

Rector-elect of Edinburgh University looks at the proposals for reform of the governance of universities and finds a promising start.

The Review of Higher Education Governance is a welcome opportunity to consider the future of Scotland’s Universities and Colleges. While most Higher Education institutions are governed to a very high standard, the ways in which they are governed is often unnecessarily opaque. As someone who has spent considerable time in the past few weeks explaining what a “Rector” is and that the “Court” is the University’s governing body, we could do with making some of the language clearer. As the review points out, the governance of some Universities includes Papal Bulls.

The highest profile proposals include a curb on Principal’s pay and an end to bonuses. Both are welcome. High pay for senior staff is a serious reputational risk, and higher pay differentials within institutions undermine staff confidence, with impact on performance. The proposal to have the Chairs of University Court directly elected is one of obvious interest to a University Rector. It is something that I’ve often discussed with other staff and students at Universities. The opportunity not only to have a Chair of the University’s governing body with a democratic mandate, but a Chair who has to engage with students and/or staff in an election campaign is one that can only improve our Universities. It’s notable that none of the Universities with Rectors have has governance problems that institutions with closed governance have suffered.

There have, in recent years, been problems with finding appropriate candidates to stand for Rector. It is a taxing job and often candidates are put off by the level of commitment. Allowing some remuneration would make it easier to find candidates and help to guarantee elections.

The proposal that there be a minimum of two students on every governing body would also provide welcome openness if accepted. Similarly, increasing the number of women on governing bodies to 40% will help to deliver more representative governance. It is welcome.

Most significantly the University requires consent from the Privy Council to change any aspect of the governance that is in legislation. This meant that Edinburgh University was required to either keep a Library Committee (which exists in statute) or ask the Privy Council to change the name to allow the committee to deal with Computing and Information Technology. The Privy Council is designed to advise the head of state. It is patently unsuited to governing Universities.

The proposal to replace the Privy Council’s powers with a body comprising the First Minister, the Lord Advocate and the Lord President of the Court of Session is eminently sensible. Further, the suggestion that the Scottish Parliament should set out in a statute the key principles of management and governance would helpfully assert that Higher Education is a power of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Ministers.

A University governing body should comprise representatives elected from the various constituencies in the University (academics, non-academic staff, Graduates and so on) with those from outside the University to give externality. These lay members are important, and the report suggests placing these members in the majority. This, however, may be a mistake. Having those with a thorough understanding of the University because they have been elected from within the institution gives governing bodies the strength to challenge decisions.

The report heralds a new way of working for Universities and Higher Education Institutions. It contains some strong and transformational demands. Public institutions should be leading the way in making their governing bodies more representative. The commitment to having elected chairs and women as 40% of their number will make governing bodies more representative.  The move to end Privy Council approval for changes is welcome and ensuring that students are guaranteed representatives on the governing body will make Universities more representative. But the balance suggested for governing bodies should reflect the needs of the institution, so having a majority of external members may diminish the strength of the Court.

Having an elected chair, like the existing Rectors at Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews will ensure more transparency and better decision making. Where University governance goes now, hopefully the rest of the economy will follow.

Peter McColl