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10 awkward things about the Scottish HE Governance Bill

Paul Greatrix takes a look at the latest proposals for governance chance in Scottish universities.
This article is more than 8 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

University governance changes in Scotland: which problems are they solving?

Wonkhe Imperfect University

I’ve posted here before about proposals for governance changes in Scotland. This all started way back in May 2012 and I wrote then about a review of governance in higher education in Scotland which had been led by the Principal of Robert Gordon University. This review eventually led to a consultation which took place last year and is covered in this post from December 2014.

The consultation in 2014 covered six broad areas for change:

• Privy Council
• Academic Freedom
• Role of Principals
• Chairing of Governing Bodies scottish govt
• Membership of Governing Bodies
• Composition of Academic Boards and Appointment of Members

And now, finally, the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill has been published. The full exciting detail of the bill can be found here along with some enlightening explanatory notes and financial details.

There have been some changes following the consultation. The proposal on replacing the need for Privy Council approval of governing documents with a specific Scottish committee has been dropped. And the rather bizarre idea that Principals should be seen as Chief Executive Officers but still called Principal has also failed to make the cut.

The Bill therefore covers Chair elections, composition of the governing body and elections to it, size and composition of academic boards and elections to them, definitions of HEIs, governing bodies and academic boards and a section on academic freedom. It is not at all clear what problems these changes are intended to address nor how the quality of higher education in Scotland will be enhanced as a result.

Some awkward issues

However, the Bill and the associated guidance raise quite a few rather awkward issues which may or may not be explained in the coming weeks. Here are just a few of them:

Governing bodies – why the change?

It is not at all clear that there was anything broken here which required fixing. It is claimed in the guidance that the new rules will introduce “greater consistency in the basic composition” of governing bodies. Why this need for such consistency across very different kinds of institution? Why do Glasgow University and Glasgow School of Art have to have similarly structured governing bodies? Consistency for its own sake seems a rather limited objective.

“Older” universities

Do we really need a definition of an “older university”?

“older university” is to be construed in accordance with section 16(1) of the Universities (Scotland) Act 1966. These are the University of Aberdeen, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow and the University of St. Andrews.”

Presumably all the others should be called “newer”.

One of those “older” universities

How do you define a higher education institution?

Should be fairly straightforward you would think. However, in a convoluted attempt to prevent extension of Scottish legislation beyond the border the definition of HEI explicitly excludes the Open University:

Not an HEI apparently.

“The effect of the definition is to capture institutions which provide higher education in Scotland only if they are eligible for public funding, while excluding the Open University on the basis that it is a single institution established elsewhere and operating across multiple jurisdictions which might otherwise be made subject to conflicting governance requirements.”

So the definition is essentially every institution except the OU. Neat.

Academic boards – the bigger the better?

There are some clear stipulations about the composition of academic boards. What is perhaps most surprising though is how generous the maximum size is – 120. Yes, 120. Arguably this scale would be less than optimal for effective academic decision making but it does at least acknowledge where some universities, particularly older ones I suspect, actually are. In addition, the basic academic units in universities are assumed to be “schools” and of the 120 members of the academic board (it really is 120), at least half are to be elected, and at least 10% have to be students. The others can be from the “schools”: the guidance says “heads of school, who are the individuals who are the most senior academics in a particular department within an HEI”.

Academic freedom

For some reason it is felt that an expanded definition of academic freedom is needed and the legislation therefore

“expands the definition of academic freedom to include the freedom to develop and advance new ideas or innovative proposals.”

It really is not clear why such an extension is required and you have to say this really doesn’t add much to anyone’s understanding of academic freedom. However, if there was a concern that current definitions of academic freedom somehow precluded new ideas or innovative proposals it is reassuring that this has, at last, been sorted out.

More substantively though the bill actually reads as a major watering down of universities’ commitments to academic freedom. Rather than committing to academic freedom as is currently the case in many institutions’ charters it is proposed that HEIs should “aim to uphold the academic freedom of all relevant persons”. To “aim to uphold” is very different to “to uphold”.

Academic staff v support staff

The bill offers what looks like a rather crude distinction between academic staff and “support staff”. Moreover, in requiring trade union representation on governing bodies the bill exacerbates this problem:

(c) 1 person appointed by being nominated by a trade union, recognised in relation to the academic staff of the institution, from among the academic staff of the institution who are members of a branch of a trade union that has a connection with the institution,
(d) 1 person appointed by being nominated by a trade union, recognized in relation to the support staff of the institution, from among the support staff of the institution who are members of a branch of a trade union that has a connection with the institution,

Both of the main academic unions, EIS and UCU, have academic and professional services staff among their memberships so it will be interesting to see how the distinction between staff groupings is sustained here.

But it is extremely disappointing to see such an outdated separation of higher education staff in the bill.

What about rectors?

Some “older universities” already elect chairs of governing bodies, rectors, and have done so for many years. However, it is not clear whether these posts will remain or will simply be replaced by chairing members.

The recently installed Rector of the University of Aberdeen

Disappointment for some no doubt if this tradition disappears.

Composition of the governing body

Whilst there is an upper limit on academic board membership there is no such limit on governing bodies. Presumably because there is an already well-established guideline of 25 and it would take a disproportionate effort to amend every HEI’s governing documents.

As a minimum though the governing body will have, according to the bill, a Chair plus eight others: two elected staff, two trade union members – one academic elected, one support staff elected – two students and two alumni. Then any others identified in governing documents and, happily:

“HEIs will remain free to make provision for matters such as removal of members under their own governing documents.”

Freedom indeed.

Paying for the chair

There is a section in the bill which provides for remuneration of the chair, something which happens rarely in UK HE at the moment but is presumably included here as an indicator that this is expected to become more common. It is not clear whether any HEI intends to begin paying their new chairs but at £512 a day as the recommended amount for six days a year no chair is going to be able to retire on the earnings. It does seem a little naïve though to assume that the only responsibilities of chairs of governing bodies amount to chairing meetings. In reality it is a much more onerous task and not taken on lightly by anyone.

Counting the costs

There does seem to be quite a degree of freedom for HEIs in organizing elections to governing bodies although it is not always clear who exactly the electorate is intended to be thanks to the staff definitions. However, having required elections for governing bodies why are Ministers looking into the costs in such detail? The Financial Memorandum to the Bill goes into great detail about the likely cost of recruitment and elections. For example, in relation to the recruitment exercise for appointing a chair of a governing body:

Resource costs attributed to the individual HEI will largely take the form of staff time to process applications and hold interviews (assuming that an interview process is to operate). There is no information readily available to calculate staff costs associated with the recruitment of a chair; however, advice from Robert Gordon University suggested that the cost to an HEI would not exceed £3,000 per recruitment exercise. These costs would be absorbed within individual institutions’ existing budgets. For those institutions already adhering to the Code, such costs would not be new. The 18 HEIs affected by the new statutory requirement to appoint a chair via a process set out in regulations will typically replace the chairing member of their court or governing body once every four years. Based on an assumed cost of £3,000 per recruitment exercise, over the course of a four year cycle of chair replacements for the higher education sector in Scotland, the total cost of administering these recruitment exercises might be £54,000.

Another cost incurred in a recruitment exercise will be the cost of advertising the vacancy. HEIs can advertise board member vacancies through their individual websites as well as the public appointments website ( with no upfront cost to individual HEIs. While the detail of the regulations is yet to be determined, they may require the vacancy to be publicised more widely. Accordingly, an examination of external advertising costs was carried out within both traditional newspaper advertising and social media outlets. It was calculated that publicising the vacancy through external services such as print and media would be likely to cost an HEI in the range of £750 to £2,000 per recruitment exercise. Assuming the maximum estimated advertising cost for each of the 18 HEIs affected, over the course of a four year cycle of chairing member replacements for the higher education sector in Scotland, the cost of advertising the vacancies might total a maximum of £36,000.

All a bit strange really.

More questions than answers

There are other unanswered questions too but, fortunately, the Bill empowers Ministers to make lots of additional regulations to address these in due course.

Overall then this really does not seem like a great stride forward in university autonomy nor is it at all clear why the Scottish Government is interfering in the detail of university governance in this way.

Ultimately we are left with the question to what problem is this rather bizarre package of measures the solution?

2 responses to “10 awkward things about the Scottish HE Governance Bill

  1. Isn’t the point about remunerating chairs that it’s a way of diversifying the pool of chairs/rectors? Of course it’s never going to be a full-time job, but I imagine that for a lot of potential chairs (especially mid-career, non senior execs) it would make the decision to put themselves forward easier. In fact the same could be said for all governors.

    1. Possibly. But is there any evidence to suggest this has worked in other sectors? I think many universities have considered remuneration in the past but discounted. A few do pay Chairs I believe but I suspect not enough to be confident about diversity.

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