Universities Scotland’s response to the Scottish Government’s Consultation on a Higher Education Governance Bill

Universities Scotland has today, Tuesday 3 February, published its response to the Scottish Government’s university governance consultation.

You can read the response in full here.

Professor Pete Downes, Convener of Universities Scotland, has commented on a number of aspects of the university governance consultation:


University autonomy and diversity

“Principals believe in inclusive, transparent and robustly accountable models of governance and to that end we have common ground amongst our stakeholders and Government. We are utterly convinced that universities are most successful when they can operate with high levels of autonomy as the evidence from around the world supports this. Therefore some of the proposals are very worrying as they would unquestionably move Scotland towards a less autonomous model of university governance and impose greater uniformity in a one-size-fits-all approach.”


Progressive not rigid governance

“Universities have a progressive model for delivering good governance. The university sector is committed to its own continuous enhancement of governance practice and the new code of good governance of 2013 is a good demonstration of this as it delivered over 300 new actions across the university sector to enhance accountability, transparency and diversity, building on what was already a robust system. Staff and students have a formal role in the strategic decisions taken by all universities, they have a formal role in scrutinising senior management and a formal role in the appointment and appraisal of the two most senior positions in a university. The new reforms should be given a chance to bed-in and fully take effect but this does not mean the end. When the new code was published a clear commitment was given to review it in 2016. We believe that is the time and best way to evaluate whether and what further change might be needed in university governance. That allows for progressive evolution rather than the rigidity that comes from legislation.”


Proposals that carry the potential to weaken not strengthen governance

“Universities receive significant levels of public investment and so expect to be fully accountable for that funding. We expect our governance to be scrutinised by a staff and student population who are encouraged to question and challenge as a core part of how they work and study. This is very healthy for our sector. But this also means we must question the value and evidence base for the consultation’s proposals. We are open to exploring the role of the privy council in university governance, provided a new model is depoliticised, as we think it could have the potential to improve transparency and efficiency. However, we are unconvinced of the need for, or benefits to be gained from many of the other proposals which represent a major erosion of university autonomy, something the Government is clear in saying it does not wish to do. A couple of the proposals carry an unintended risk of weakening the strong lines of accountability that already exist between the Chair and the governing body and of undermining a core principal of good governance which is that every member of a governing body surrenders their self-interest upon joining. They are so central to good governance it is vital they are protected.

“We recognise that our staff, student and political stakeholders share our interest in upholding the principles of good governance and hope there will be plenty of opportunity to consider the responses to the consultation and discuss the best way forward together. We look forward to a constructive dialogue with Scottish Government.”


On proposals for a representative role for trade unions on the governing body

“University leaders are committed to a close and constructive relationship with their recognised trade unions, who represent just over a quarter of university staff. This dialogue takes place in forums such as joint negotiating committees where the interests of each partner are clear. We believe it would be wrong in principle to create a ‘representative’ role for trade unionists on governing bodies: it is fundamental to good governance that the members of governing bodies act only in the interests of the institution. A ‘representative’ trade union member of a governing body would be placed into a conflict of interest between their duties as a governor and their mandate from their trade union.

“We also believe it is undemocratic to privilege the interests of the minority of staff who have chosen to join a trade union. Staff are currently free to elect who they choose to governing bodies, including trade unionsists.”

On gender balance amongst governing bodies

“Equality and diversity is an issue that universities take very seriously and we have been delighted to see the gender balance amongst the position of Chairs shift significantly in the last year with women appointed on merit to fill five out of the last six vacancies. Further measures are being taken to encourage a wider range of applicants and this goes beyond gender to include other protected characteristics. This is a responsibility that everyone on the governing body, including staff and student members, has to take seriously if we are to achieve a gender balance. As governors typically serve for two or three years, with the option of renewal, this will take some time to achieve but the commitment is there.”