University leaders welcomed the scrutiny of the HE Governance (Scotland) Bill at the Education Committee today [Tuesday, 9 February] as members of Scottish Labour, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish National Party all heavily criticised the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill at stage 2, calling it ‘embarrassing’ and ‘unworkable’.
The Cabinet Secretary faced calls from opposition members at the Committee to take some of the Bill’s amendments away, to consult with stakeholders and return at stage 3 with new amendments that reflect promises that the Scottish Government has previously given to Parliament.
Yet in the face of much criticism, the Bill and the amendments laid by the Scottish Government were passed by the Committee meaning the Bill progresses to stage three and is likely to be passed into an Act before Parliament breaks for the election.
The Bill aims to alter the governance arrangements of Scotland’s 18 higher education institutions by introducing a one-size-fits-all approach to a group of institutions that vary enormously from large institutions of almost 10,000 staff to small-specialist institutions that have less than 100 staff. The Bill aims to introduce elections to the most senior role in HE governance despite a strong evidence base that suggests that elections to this type of role do nothing to strengthen or improve good governance. The Bill also introduces different but overlapping electorates for the roles of Chair and Rector which, under the terms of the Bill, will have poorly differentiated roles on the governing body.
The Bill has attracted controversy from the start as universities are autonomous institutions and should not be subject to Government control in this way.
The list of amendments, necessary to address the Bill’s failings, put to the Education and Culture Committee for consideration today was 50 per cent longer than the Bill itself.
Responding to the decisions at the Education Committee, Professor Sir Pete Downes, Convener of Universities Scotland and Principal at the University of Dundee, said:
“This Bill has faced a barrage of criticism from the beginning as it is poorly evidenced, poorly drafted and a great number of stakeholders, including Principals, fear it will weaken good governance and accountability and diversity in our universities rather than improve it.
“The Government has not brought forward any evidence of a problem that needs a solution and there is no evidence to support its proposals. Today opposition parties asked the Cabinet Secretary to pause on the Bill and bring something better back at stage three but the Bill presses on anyway. The amendments create a confusing and inoperable model for the election of chairs of our governing body. It’s a very disappointing outcome and we are left in no doubt that good governance in our universities will suffer if this Bill is passed into law.”
More positively, other amendments to remove section 8 and 13 of the Bill were approved by the Education Committee. These sections had been highly controversial because they heightened the risk of a reclassification of the university sector by the Office of National Statistics. Such a classification could have cost the sector millions of pounds in lost revenue. The Committee also passed amendments to remove an arbitrary cap on the number of members of a university’s academic board. This would have disenfranchised academic staff from decision-making on academic matters within some universities when the stated objectives of the Bill is to increase participation and democracy in the university sector.
Susannah Lane, Head of Public Affairs, Universities Scotland
0131 225 0701 or 07715 992908 firstname.lastname@example.org