Friday, 14 November 2014

Scottish Governance

Recently the Scottish Government released a consultation document on University Governance. The BBC and other media picked up on this, headlining the proposals for elected chairs of governing bodies. (You can see the BBC story here, and the Scottish Government consultation document here.) The proposals are interesting and worth a bit of reflection. And certainly exciting for policy and governance wonks.

There are six specific proposals for consultation.

The first is the replacement of Privy Council functions, in respect of university governance, by a committee accountable to the Scottish Parliament, and comprising the same individuals who are consulted by the Privy Council currently on university governance matters.

The rationale is that this will speed things up and introduce an element of public scrutiny. In university folklore the Privy Council is very slow indeed and a reason often cited why universities can never change their charters and statutes or instrument and articles of government. In practice the Privy Council is now pretty quick on straightforward changes, but it’s a fair observation that previous changes in approach have not been subject to the same scrutiny. (My recollection is that the relaxation of regulation which enabled universities to slim down their charters was as a result of ministerial fiat, and not legislation, but I may be wrong).

The second proposal is for an expanded definition of academic freedom, building on the current UK definition (academic staff shall have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges) by adding that academic freedom includes “the freedom to encourage the exploration of new ideas”.

I find this a little odd. Is this a bid to make enterprise feel a bit more normal as part of the academic endeavour, and encourage income from inventions, patents and the like? That might be a fine thing, but it's hardly an issue of academic freedom. If the Scottish Parliament really wanted to secure academic freedom then they could look at the legislation in New Zealand. I'll post on academic freedom another time.

The third proposal seeks to confirm the role of the Principal as Chief Executive Officer. This looks like a tidying up provision, bringing clarity to who should be accountable for public funds. But it also asks what title should be used, if not Principal, for this role. To my mind, if it looks like a Vice-Chancellor and sounds like a Vice-Chancellor, then it probably is a Vice-Chancellor. Are they hoping to make Principals into Presidents on the US model? Or is this just a distraction?

The fourth proposal is what got the headlines. And it isn't half as exciting as it sounds: the idea is not for popular (or in fact unpopular) election, like Police and Crime Commissioners. It is for a process of job description, search, shortlisting by interview and then election by academic staff and perhaps external stakeholders. Having been involved in the appointment of chairs of governing bodies, I know that it's tough to find the right person and persuade them to do the job. I'm not sure that adding a public election will lead to better outcomes.

The fifth proposal is for governing bodies to include two students, two staff members, two members nominated by Trades' Unions (one from academic and related staff; one from administrative, technical or support staff);and two alumni. The Trades' Union category is, I believe, novel; it will be interesting to see the reaction to this.

Finally, the sixth proposal is for academic boards to be confirmed as the supreme academic decision making body in a university (echoing the bicameral approach typical of chartered universities); that other than the Principal and Heads of School, all other members should be elected from amongst the university’s staff; that elected members must be a majority; and that the total size should not exceed 120.

This is, I think, quite radical. Combined with the other measures, it makes the Principal the CEO but builds in an academic check-and-balance against a university drifting from an academic mission as perceived by its academic staff. This might be seen as a move to reinforce standards, but could also be a way to guarantee conservatism within a university. Universities have found many ways to resist change. Read the Microcosmographia Academica if you need convincing of this.

FM Cornford - he of the Microcosmographia Academica
How will these proposals go down? Universities Scotland is against them:
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.
Which I read as a circumlocutory way of saying 'get stuffed'.

Whereas Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Principal of Robert Gordon University and chair of the 2012 Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland welcomed the report, according to Chris Havergal in the Times Higher, as completing the work of the review.

Watch this space for next steps.

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