University principals ask the Scottish Government to stop and think about potentially damaging governance proposals in light of strong concern from civic Scotland

Business leaders, student associations and other independent commentators have added weight to the serious concern already expressed by university leaders at Scottish Government proposals to legislate on higher education governance.

The Scottish Government has published an analysis of the written responses to its consultation on higher education governance today (Thursday 9 April). Over 125 submissions have been made to the consultation from across the breadth of civic Scotland as well as from higher education institutions themselves and their student and staff unions.

A strong majority of the responses, including a great many of those received from outside of the higher education sector, raise cause for concern about some or all of the Scottish Government’s proposals. The balance of such serious concerns must be reflected in the Scottish Government’s response.

Reacting to the summary of responses, university leaders are asking the Scottish Government to stop and think; to work with universities to find ways forward that acknowledge these concerns.

The analysis of written responses, undertaken by The Research Shop on behalf of the Scottish Government, found:

  • 91 per cent opposed to legislating to rename a university Principal as Chief Executive Officer (paragraph 1.15 in the report).
  • 78 per cent opposed to the proposal to legislate that the selection process for the Chair of the governing body should culminate in an election by a group of representatives both internal and external to the university (paragraph 1.19).
  • 67 per cent opposed to legislating to reserve seats for students, staff, alumni and trade union representatives (paragraph 1.34). Staff and students are already represented on the governing bodies of all Scottish higher education institutions under existing governance arrangements. The proposal to ring-fence seats on the governing body for trade unions is new and does not represent current practice.
  • 91 per cent agreed that the position of Chair of the governing body should be selected through open and transparent process including external advertisement (paragraph 1.17-1.18). This has been standard practice across the university sector since the introduction of the Scottish Code of Good HE Governance in 2013. Legislation is not required to deliver this.

There are several recurring themes amongst the objections from civic Scotland, business leaders and some student associations, including:

Concern at the lack of evidence presented for the need for change.

  • A strong view that legislation is the not the right course of action.
  • Concerns that aspect of the proposals actually have the potential to weaken good governance, including a proposal which would sever the link of accountability between Chair and governing body.
  • Concerns about the introduction of ‘representatives’ on governing bodies, eroding the principle that governors serve solely in the interest of the institution and creating potential conflicts of interest.
  • Emphasis on the importance of university autonomy and concerns over the potential to politicise universities.

Extracts from the consultation responses from organisations outside of the university sector and student associations, as shown below, reveal the intensity of feeling and level of concern these proposals have provoked from within civic Scotland and parts of the student community in addition to that felt by university Principals and governing bodies.

Universities Scotland and every one of the 19 higher education institutions it represents is committed to good governance that is robustly transparent, inclusive, accountable and effective. As autonomous, charitable organisations higher education institutions should remain responsible for their governance mechanisms which already ensure the involvement of staff, students and wider university communities and have strong lines of accountability to Government and other funders.

Highly-prescriptive and badly planned legislation would be a damaging distraction from what universities really want to prioritise, which is their contribution to inclusive economic growth.

As stakeholder opinions are made clear, the Scottish Government should acknowledge the concerns raised and engage with university leaders and other stakeholders to determine a better way to progress our shared goal of excellent governance.

Responding to today’s summary of the consultation responses, Professor Pete Downes, Convener of Universities Scotland and Principal at the University of Dundee, said:

“We need government urgently to engage with university leaders to find a way forward. The weight of consultation responses from civic Scotland and the level of concern expressed, on top of that already made clear by universities, mean that ministers need to pause and take stock.

“Universities are committed to promoting Scotland’s inclusive economic growth and to workforce engagement. We have students and staff at the heart of our governance.

“We need ministers to reflect seriously on the wide range of evidence that says the proposals in the consultation paper will damage universities’ contribution to Scotland’s success. We would welcome close engagement with government on finding solutions that support transparent and effective governance.”

Two proposals in the consultation paper seriously threaten to undermine the practice of good governance in the university sector.

  • The proposal to elect the Chair may seem to reflect the democratic ideal on face value but it risks severing an essential link of accountability between the Chair and the governing body and weakening the role of all other members of the governing body.
  • The proposal to introduce the concept of representation to governing body membership, with the addition of seats reserved for trade union representatives, threatens to erode the established principle of good governance that governing body members should serve in the interests of the institution, not in the specific sectional interest of those they represent.

Universities have strong and robust relationships with five recognised trade unions, which represent 26 per cent of staff, and engage and negotiate with unions on a range of issues through established mechanisms. Universities Scotland’s objection to trade union membership on the governing body in a representative capacity has no bearing on any other role played by trade unions within the university sector.

A new Code of governance, developed by the sector in wide consultation with staff and students at every higher education institution and introduced in 2013, has already delivered over 350 new actions across the sector over the last eighteen months. Elements of good governance, currently practiced by institutions, are not recognised in the Scottish Government consultation including the open and transparent recruitment process for the most senior role in university governance, that of the Chair, with publication of a job description and skills matrix. Staff and students sit on selection panels and have a role in both the appointment and appraisal of the Chair and of the Principal.

At the time the Code was launched a commitment was made to review its effectiveness in 2016. This will provide an inclusive opportunity to determine whether further change in governance is necessary and how it should be delivered.

Extracts from consultation responses

Relevant extracts taken from submissions made directly to the Scottish Government as part of its consultation exercise can be read here and and are published in full on the Scottish Government website here.



  • The analysis of written responses undertaken by The Research Shop on behalf of the Scottish Government and published by the Scottish Government on 9 April can be found here.
  • The analysis of written responses states that 125 submissions were received (page 1). 107 are published on the Scottish Government’s website.
  • The full list of responses to the Scottish Government’s consultation on legislation for HE governance can be found here.
  • Universities Scotland’s response to the consultation can be found .