Higher education governance: University sector committed to excellence and accountability

University leaders today:

  • Demonstrated the high standards of transparency, accountability and effectiveness of current higher education governance arrangements in a Code which establishes a ‘new normal’ of excellence
  • Commented on the Scottish Government’s consultation about proposed legislation on higher education governance.

Excellence in governance: report on implementation of new standards

The Committee of the Chairs of Scottish Higher Education Institutions (CSC) has published an extensive report on the current highly progressive state of university governance, following adoption of new standards in a Scottish higher education governance code over 2013/14. This code was developed by a group led by Lord Smith of Kelvin with stakeholder input from every higher education institution across Scotland and from wider stakeholders. It built existing key strengths and good practice, and set new expectations for progressive change.

Evaluation of progress one year into the code’s implementation shows that the sector has responded quickly to the new governance expectations laid down by the Code. Progressive changes have been made that enhance the sector’s diversity, inclusiveness, transparency, accountability and effectiveness. In total over 350 actions have been taken across the sector. Implementation has led to progress including:

  • diversity: five of the last six appointments to the role of chair have been women.
  • diversity: A raft of measures have been introduced with the goal of securing greater diversity amongst independent members.
  • diversity: 42 per cent of all new appointments of independent members on governing bodies have been women.
  • inclusiveness: inclusion of students and staff on nomination committees which lead the recruitment of the Principal, the Chair of the governing body and independent members.
  • accountabilty: a new formal means within the code for staff and students to hold the Principal and chair to account.
  • accountability: the code now requires external involvement in the review of universities’ governance arrangements at least once every five years.
  • transparency: the register of interests for independent members of the governing body is now published online.
  • transparency: the governing body sets the policies of the remuneration committee, which decides on pay for the principal and senior staff. The governing body can see for itself that decisions made by the remuneration committee comply with these policies.

David Ross, Chair of the CSC , commented:

“I’m very proud that, building on strong foundations, the university sector has established a ‘new normal’ of the very highest standards of transparency, accountability and effectiveness. I’m proud that the implementation of the new code places students and staff at the heart of good governance. These actions are built on a strong foundation of governance that was already in place throughout the sector, as recognised by Professor von Prondzynski in the 2012 review of higher education governance.

“This is exactly what an autonomous university sector should be doing – setting itself the very highest standards of governance and showing that we can implement these.”

Scottish Government consultation paper on a higher education governance bill

University leaders also commented in the Scottish Government’s consultation, released today, on possible legislation on higher education governance.

Commenting on these proposals, Universities Scotland Convener Professor Pete Downes said:

“Higher education is a very successful sector in Scotland; one that excels across almost every measure of performance and one that is continuously working to deliver more for Scotland economically, socially and internationally. Autonomous universities are responsive to the many and varied communities we serve and are fully committed to the principles of inclusiveness, transparency, effectiveness and accountability that underpin good governance.

“Universities have just adopted a governance code which enhances these principles. We urge careful appraisal of whether government action now will enhance universities’ implementation of the principles which are at the heart of our autonomy and success.

“We welcome the consultation paper’s stated commitment to the maintenance of institutions’ autonomy. We must also support institutions’ rich diversity, and we look for consultation outcomes that support autonomy and diversity.

“As institutions we are committed to a rigorous evidence-based consideration of issues and we will be applying that standard to our appraisal of the proposals in the consultation paper. It will be important to determine whether the further changes proposed would work to strengthen institutions’ performance and effectiveness.

“We will make the case for outcomes from the consultation that:

  • protect the strong democratic elements of university governance including the freedom for all staff and students to elect members of the governing body, and
  • ensure that a wide range of diverse and able candidates are attracted to the leadership role of chairing governing bodies, and that they are selected in a way which commands the confidence of the whole governing body including staff and students.
  • “We will discuss whether various of the proposals in the consultation are appropriate subjects for government policy or legislation, or whether they reflect recommendations which the Von Prondzynski Review made to universities rather than to government.

“The Scottish Government has made a significant investment in the higher education sector in recent years which has been invaluable in keeping the sector competitive on an international stage and delivering for the economy at home. We need to ensure that the outcomes from this consultation are consistent with universities’ autonomous capacity to deliver a social, economic and cultural return on that investment.”

Notes for news editors

  1. Universities perform multiple roles for a diverse range of stakeholders, all of whom have high expectations of a well performing sector and not all of which pull in the same direction. This diversity amongst stakeholders is reflected in universities’ governing bodies that include over 200 individuals drawn from Scotland’s public, private and third sectors who sit alongside universities’ own staff and students. Within each institution, a body that reflects this level of diversity reaches agreement on a strategic direction for the higher education institution it serves. This inclusive process provides the legitimacy that underpins universities’ autonomy and the freedom for universities to chart a course that is independent of Government or Parliament.
  2. Currently, around one-third of governing body members, on average, are elected by constituencies including staff, students and alumni.
  3. There are robust and extensive mechanisms in place to ensure accountability for public and private investment in universities and to regulate universities’ operations. These mechanisms run to over 550 separate lines of external reporting.
  4. An appraisal of the current state of university governance is available here:
  5. The Scottish Government’s consultation can be found here: