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Does anyone believe in democracy anymore?

Despite our purported love for democracy, the university debate shows that ‘senior people’ consider the idea of democracy to be all threat and no opportunity

Alan Simpson is the unelected Chair of Court (the governing body) of Stirling University. But a dark shadow lies over his institution. Earlier in the year an inquiry into university governance suggested that the Chair of the governing body should be elected. Mr Simpson considers this some sort of catastrophe. In his view this would mean “there would be a danger the different candidates would prepare manifestos that could promote divisiveness in the institution”. Oh, how worrying – the institution might be opened up to debate about what it is for and where its future lies by people preparing manifestos and seeking broad support for those manifestos. And they might be ‘divisive’, by which I think he simply means ‘not all the same’.

So let’s dwell on this for a second and ask if these comments might be sensibly applied elsewhere. Like the nation. Should we have an unfortunate situation where the country might be at danger of different political parties proposing alternative futures for the UK which could very well promote divisiveness? Mr Simpson is clearly of the view that all this would do is interfere with the right of self-appointed wealthy people to impose their own personal manifestos on the rest of us without demur or dissent.

In the case of Stirling University, staff and students will be glad to know that their future is being protected from extraneous debate about what exactly it is that Mr Simpson wants to do. He owes his position to the Court itself which appoints a Chair usually on the strong recommendation of the senior management team of the university. And that, we are to understand, is the best way to organise matters. So long as wealthy people and senior managers agree with each other utopia must be around the corner. In fact there are something like 16 people on the average university court and probably no more than eight in a senior management team – a total of two dozen people. Of these half tend either not to be influential (it is a rare senior management team that has wide-ranging open discussion and then opposes the Principal) or their vote fails anyway (Courts are stacked against student and staff representation). So mibby a dozen people per university – no more than 200 people in the country – get something close to £2bn to spend as they see fit. And they certainly do not see any need to discuss this with anyone or ask anyone’s opinion.

But Mr Simpson is not alone – today the Scotsman frets that ‘democratisation’ of universities might harm their ability to regain lost ground internationally. So have we all agreed that medieval plutocracy is our nation’s future? Should we accept the principle that A Few Good Men should be allowed unchallenged to run anything they want in any way they want?

There are names for this philosophical tendency; when we see it in other countries we sometimes invade and shoot or hang the people involved. All in the name of ‘the people’s voice’. But here, in Scotland, the people are a problem at all times to be kept out of any form of decision-making. The universities are a remarkable extension of this given that they don’t even seem to recognise any political accountability to the Parliament.

We must all challenge this anti-democratic arrogance and ask a simple question – why so afraid of having to answer for what you have done? Presumably Mr Simpson, having agreed that he is the best possible leader the institution could ever have, is confident enough of his qualities that he can put them forward for others to consider. Or possibly not.

Robin McAlpine