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The Imperfect University: Reviewing Higher Education in Scotland

Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland  As we have seen in the previous post in this series on regulation, governments, although they will often talk the language of freedom and autonomy, cannot help but get themselves involved in the regulation of higher education. However, Scotland is different and higher education in … Continued
This article is more than 12 years old

Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland 

Wonkhe Imperfect University

As we have seen in the previous post in this series on regulation, governments, although they will often talk the language of freedom and autonomy, cannot help but get themselves involved in the regulation of higher education. However, Scotland is different and higher education in Scotland is different. And it is unsurprising that the Scottish Government, with control over higher education policy, will wish to continue to follow an alternative path to England. But it looks like it may be unable to stop itself pursuing further regulation of universities. Hence the Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland which has been produced by a Committee chaired by the Principal of Robert Gordon University (who has also blogged on this topic). It is a bold report which seems intended to reinforce the differences with England and to require greater accountability. But if you are looking at this from a university perspective, it seems to be a rather directive set of recommendations which, if enacted, would be a significant constraint on institutional autonomy. So we will have to wait and see if the Scottish Government can resist the invitation to get involved in more regulation of universities.

It is not entirely clear what problems these recommendations are intended to solve or how they will advance excellence in teaching and research at Scotland’s HE institutions. Moreover, the evidence base considered (as listed in the Bibliography) seems rather narrow: whilst the articles in the London Review of Books by Hotson and Collini represent interesting contributions to the higher education debate on changes in England, it is perhaps surprising that they are referenced as source material here. The other point of note is that the Committee was a small one with what appears to be very limited input from the universities.

Some of the recommendations are fairly innocuous but some of them seem quite remarkable and far reaching even in the Scottish context where there is much less conceptual and regulatory distance between government and universities. The full list of the recommendations can be found in the Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland.

The cornerstone of the proposed reform is a new all-embracing statute:

The panel therefore recommends that the Scottish Parliament enact a statute for Scotland’s higher education sector setting out the key principles of governance and management and serving as the legal basis for the continued establishment of all recognised higher education institutions.

The new statute should be drafted as a measure that will rationalise and simplify the regulatory framework of higher education governance; it might provide for:

  • the conditions applying to the establishment of new universities;
  • the key structures of university governance and management;
  • the role and composition of governing bodies and academic boards;
  • the role and appointment of university principals;
  • the drawing up of a code of good governance for Scottish higher education;
  • the status of student associations;
  • the principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

However, the statute should continue to embrace diversity of mission and of operation, and should reinforce the principles of university autonomy and of academic freedom


Wonkhe The Scottish Government

The details of each of these are set out in the recommendations but this is a really striking proposition – essentially it is an attempt to impose some order and coherence on Scottish HEIs but for what purpose is far from clear other than wanting things to be a bit neater and to regulate new entrants. Moreover, by setting out statutory requirements in each of these areas this would seem fundamentally to challenge the espoused principle of university autonomy and also constrain diversity of institutional mission.

Let’s look at the specifics of some of these recommendations:

2.4 Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy

A definition of academic freedom should be incorporated in the statute governing higher education, based on the definition contained in Ireland’s Universities Act 1997, and applying to all ‘relevant persons’ as under the existing 2005 Act.

Scottish universities and higher education institutions should adopt a similar approach and that each institution should adopt through appropriate internal processes, and present to the SFC, a statement on its implementation of the statutory protection of academic freedom.

Is there a problem with academic freedom in Scotland? It really isn’t clear why, given the statutory protections which already exist, you would want to extend this much further unless it is to include it as a requirement for all academic staff, whether or not they are in universities (although how they would be defined if not is unclear), and to ensure that any new universities were mandated to build in such guarantees. But to impose such requirements on universities, regardless of how well-intentioned, does represent a challenge to their autonomy notwithstanding the fact that the funding council already has a responsibility to have regard to academic freedom.

2.5 The Role of Governance

Governing bodies should be required to demonstrate that their deliberations and decisions appropriately observe the four objectives the panel has set out for university governance, and they should regularly review their own performance against these.

The fundamental principle of a collaborative approach wherever appropriate should be enshrined in the Scottish university system through making the fostering of collaboration between universities a task for the Scottish Funding Council.

Wonkhe Review of HE governanceThree of the four objectives set out here seem entirely reasonable being concerned with stewardship for the long term, ensuring mission delivery and making proper use of public funds but the fourth – “ensuring stakeholder participation and accounting to the wider society for institutional performance” – seems, although worthy, somewhat at odds with institutional autonomy. Similarly, enshrining collaboration through funding arrangements may limit universities’ freedom to act independently and, although it will often be entirely reasonable for them to collaborate, surely this should be through choice or incentivisation rather than compulsion.

2.9 The Relationship with Further Education

All Scottish universities should not only include responsibilities to their region, alongside their national and international objectives, in their mission statements, but also seek ways to engage proactively, for the benefit of students and the Scottish education system as a whole, with further education institutions and any new governance structures that may be put in place.

Of course all universities will wish to address their regional responsibilities but to regulate this and insist on some form of activity with FE seems, once again, somewhat challenging to institutional freedom to pursue their agreed mission.

3.1 Appointment and Role of Principals

The heads of Scottish higher education institutions should be described as the ‘chief officer’, and that the job title should continue to be ‘Principal’.

There should be widened participation in the process for appointing Principals, and core to this approach should be the reform of the way in which of appointment panels are set up and operate.

The appraisal of Principals should involve external governing body members, staff and students.

3.2 Remuneration of Principals and Senior Management

Further percentage increases beyond those awarded to staff in general should not take place until existing processes have been reviewed and, if appropriate, amended.

Universities should ensure that any payments that may be perceived as bonuses are either abolished or at least transparently awarded and brought into line with the scale of ‘contribution payments’ available to on-scale staff.

Remuneration committees should include staff and student members. The work of the committee should be transparent, and in particular, the basis upon which pay is calculated should be published. While the Framework Agreement, determining pay scales for university staff up to the grade of professor, is a UK matter, the Scottish Government should investigate whether it might be extended north of the border to include all staff including Principals. There should be a standard format for reporting senior officer pay, and the SFC should publish these figures annually.

The SFC should investigate how the principles of the Hutton Report are being or should be applied to universities in Scotland.

Whilst it is not, arguably, terribly important what the Principal is described as it is not at all clear why the Irish approach has been proposed here nor why it is any of the government’s business what universities call their chief executives. More importantly though why should the appointment of Principals and their appraisal and remuneration be the subject of additional legislation? And doesn’t this again reduce institutional autonomy given the safeguards already in place in university charters, statutes and other statutory instruments?

Presumably this is all a response to a perception that Principals are overpaid and the wider societal concern about senior staff pay and bonuses. And there is a view here that all of this is necessary to secure staff engagement and to deliver institutional success. But once again should it not be a matter for the university and its governing body to determine?


Wonkhe Scottish parliament4. Role, Composition and Appointment of Governing Bodies

Meetings of governing bodies should normally be held in public unless the matters under consideration are deemed to be of a confidential or commercially sensitive nature; these exceptional matters should be established through clear guidelines.

4.1 Chairing of Governing Bodies

The chair of the governing body should be elected, thus reflecting the democratic ideal of Scottish higher education (recommended by a majority, one member dissenting).

The chair should receive some form of reasonable remuneration (recommended by a majority, one member dissenting).

Again, the issue of autonomy and the constraint on the ability of the governing body to determine its own operation. The proposals around the election of the chair of the governing body are among the most surprising in the report (which is not short of surprises). The argument is that “the democratic ideal” of Scottish HE, which seems to be exemplified by the election of Rectors at the ancient universities, is to take precedence in the arrangements for appointing a chair of governors. Whilst some institutions may welcome this, it is questionable whether this is really the best way to deliver the leadership of the governing body which universities require. And the transaction costs and uncertainties would be significant. Remuneration decisions should, again, be matters for institutions themselves.

4.2 Membership of Governing Bodies

Positions on governing bodies for lay or external members should be advertised externally and all appointments should be handled by the nominations committee of the governing body. Each governing body should be so constituted that the lay or external members have a majority of the total membership.

There should be a minimum of two students on the governing body, nominated by the students’ association/union, one of whom should be the President of the Students’ Association and at least one of whom should be a woman. There should be at least two directly elected staff members. In addition, there should be one member nominated by academic and related unions and one by administrative, technical or support staff unions. The existing system of academic board representatives (called ‘Senate assessors’ in some universities) should also be continued. Governing bodies should also have up to two alumni representatives.

The existing practice in some universities of having ‘Chancellor’s assessors’ should be discontinued.

Each governing body should be required to ensure (over a specified transition period) that at least 40 per cent of the membership is female. Each governing body should also ensure that the membership reflects the principles of equality and diversity more generally, reflecting the diversity of the wider society.

Governing bodies should be required to draw up and make public a skills and values matrix for the membership of the governing body, which would inform the recruitment of independent members of the governing body. The membership of the governing body should be regularly evaluated against this matrix.

Expenses available to those who sit on the governing body should include any wages lost as a result of attending meetings.

Senior managers other than the Principal should not be governing body members and should not be in attendance at governing body meetings, except for specific agenda items at which their individual participation is considered necessary, and for those agenda items only.

4.4 Training

All universities should be required to ensure that governors – including external governors, staff governors and student governors – are fully briefed and trained, and their knowledge should be refreshed regularly in appropriate programmes. Each governing body should be required to report annually on the details of training made available to and availed of by governors.

5.1 Composition of the Academic Board and Appointment of Members

In line with existing legislation applying to the ancient universities, the academic board should be the final arbiter on academic matters.

Apart from the Principal and the heads of School (or equivalent) who should attend ex officio, all other members should be elected by the constituency that they represent, and elected members should form a majority of the total membership. In establishing the membership of the academic board, due regard should be given to the principles of equality, and the need for the body to be representative. This includes a requirement to ensure that there is significant (rather than token) student representation. Overall, academic boards should not normally have more than 120 members.

All terribly prescriptive. Whilst it is hard to argue with any individual item, these really should all be matters for institutions themselves to determine.

(And 120 members is probably not the ideal number for effective decision making at Academic Board level.)

Wonkhe Old college


7.3 Avoiding Bureaucratisation

The Scottish Funding Council should undertake a review of the bureaucratic and administrative demands currently made of higher education institutions from all government and public agency sources, with a view to rationalising these and thereby promoting more transparent and efficient regulation and governance.

7.4 Code of Good Governance

The Scottish Funding Council should commission the drafting of a Code of Good Governance for higher education institutions.

Given the prescriptive and far-reaching nature of most of the recommendations, a Code of Good Governance would seem to be an unwelcome addition – and it will look a bit more like a rule book than a guide. However, step one in the review of bureaucratic and administrative demands recommended here would usefully be to consider most of the proposals preceding this one in the document!

So, a pretty extraordinary document. The responses from the Scottish universities so far seems to have been rather muted. The Times has recently reported on some more vocal opposition and concern about “meddling” in university affairs:

Last night, Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman said it appeared there was “widespread and growing” concern about key proposals in the Von Prondzynski review.

She said: “There are two main fears, firstly, that universities are being pushed into radical reform when there is no evidence to suggest that there is a serious problem with the existing structures of university governance and, secondly, that some of the proposed reforms are more about the Scottish government’s desire to diminish the autonomy of universities in favour of increasing the power of ministers.

“On both counts, I think the universities are absolutely right to be concerned.”

Kim Catcheside has published a column on the report in the Guardian Professional, in which she notes that:

Behind the scenes, universities may be concerned about the possibility of political interference but are cautious about speaking out. Mary Senior from the University and College Union told The Scotsman: “It is fair the Scottish government expects certain standards to follow this generous settlement, but it must be very careful not to be overly prescriptive or directive about the learning, research and teaching that goes on in universities.”

Quite an indication there in the comments from UCU of how far reaching these proposals are. Will this report enhance the quality of Scottish higher education? We will see. It will certainly exacerbate the already marked differences between English and Scottish university operations, funding and governance. It is undoubtedly a stimulating document and reflective of many of the challenges facing universities but it is difficult to disagree with the concluding comment made by Liz Smith in the Times piece above:

“The Scottish government is going down a dangerous road of reform which is both interventionist and bureaucratic and which threatens the independence of our most successful academic institutions.”

7 responses to “The Imperfect University: Reviewing Higher Education in Scotland

  1. “one of whom should be the President of the Students’ Association”

    The president of the SA presumable already has power and influence, why would you provide this person with even more power and influence if the ideal is democratic? No elected office of the student association should be a student representative of the governing body, instead these positions should be separately elected by the student body (and ideally not consist of those with other official positions).

  2. Just as a matter of interest: in what way do you feel (as you endorse the comments made by Liz Smith) that our proposals would threaten the independence of universities?

    Secondly, and as a matter of record, you say the Scottish Government’s response has been ‘muted’. I’m not sure how you conclude that, given the Government’s strong statement in support of the report and its stated intention of implementing ‘almost all’ of it.

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