The Bill on the Governance of Scottish Universities

The Bill before the Scottish Parliament on the governance of Scottish Universities has implications not only for Scotland but anybody interested in the relationship of governments to the universities in their territories.

Here are some weblinks to this debate:

CDBU has received several communications from members on the topic in private, among them the following remarks:

“One of the key proposals [of the Scottish government], and the one that has provoked the most opposition from the Scottish university ‘establishment’, is that Chairs of Courts, i.e. Councils / Governing Bodies in English parlance, should be elected. I agree that, in principle, Governments shouldn’t prescribe how universities govern themselves – although they always have. But my understanding is that the students and the staff trade unions support this proposal. VCs, for obvious reasons, hate the idea because they like to have a big say in hand-picking Chairs. So, as with almost everything, it is more complicated.”

Another writes:

“Are the Principals of Scottish universities confronting a dilemma at least partly of their own making?  Like their English counterparts, they have emancipated themselves from their academic colleagues by abolishing, for most practical purposes, the older notion that universities are self-governing communities of scholars.  They have replaced this ancient conception with systems for populating senior governing bodies which are, by comparison, rather arbitrary and self-serving, that is, which lack any similarly profound grounding in a shared conception of what universities should be while serving to render universities more tractable to ‘managers’ like themselves.  That being the case, should they be surprised when government steps in and insists on imposing its own conception of order?

Nor should they be surprised if their academic colleagues do not rush to join their protest against this form of government interference. ‘Senior managers’ can no long appeal to ‘the academic community’ for support because they have destroyed that community, at least as a self-governing entity. Moreover, having deprived ordinary academics of any significant role in managing affairs within their individual universities, they can hardly expect them to intervene effectively on the national stage. And even if they do intervene, why should academics fight to preserve a kind of ‘university autonomy’ which no longer means either academic freedom (to teach and research as one deems best) or academic self-governance (which leaves control of universities ultimately in the hands of fellow academics)?  If academics no longer govern ourselves, it is not clear why they should prefer to be ruled by self-proclaimed ’managers’, accountable only to their hand-picked boards, rather than politicians, accountable to the electorate.”

For an alternative point of view, The Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland has kindly given us permission to circulate their submission, which you can read here.

We have also received the response of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on the subject, which you can also read here.

Australian universities at risk

Although CDBU’s focus is on British Universities, we take a keen interest in developments in other countries. Australia is of particular interest, because the loans system used in Australian higher education was used to help justify the marketisation of English universities. But now, the English example is provoking calls for even more radical change in Australia. As in England, most vice-chancellors are either silent, or actively supporting the deregulation of fees. An exception is Professor Stephen Parker, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, who writes:

I send my greetings to the Council for the Defence of British Universities. We have been going through an extraordinary period in Australian higher education, where a new government, in direct violation of immediate pre-election promises, has proposed to cut funding by 20% whilst allowing universities to charge it back from the students and go further. Except for an artificial ceiling of the equivalent international student fee, there is to be no upper limit on what domestic students can be charged. On 2nd December, the Senate voted down the proposals and the government announced it would re-introduce the Bill. I am the only vice-chancellor to speak out against the proposals and seek to defend the public nature of education and the interests of tomorrow’s students.


Read Prof Parker’s trenchant criticism of fee deregulation here in which he describes Australia as ‘sleepwalking towards the privatisation of its universities’.