Friday 25-09-2015 - 12:00
What do Edward Snowden and the Institute of Directors have in common? You’d think (maybe even hope) not much. However, they've both seemingly been united in their opposition to the HE Governance Bill. And when that happens, you know that something weird might be going on...
Often, when working for a students’ union, you hear the same old stereotypes: students are just trouble makers who shout the loudest, rather than engaging in dialogue and debate.
But recently, NUS Scotland and UCU Scotland have become two of the most reasoned - and reasonable- voices, as attacks on the proposed Higher Education Governance Bill have become increasingly hyperbolic, and even bizarre. We’ve seen apocalyptic warnings about what the Bill would mean for universities, rooted more in straw-clutching conjecture than reality.
It would be funny if it weren’t so insidious, and baseless arguments against the Bill are intended to threaten the dismantling of what could, and should, be a progressive move for all universities in Scotland to improve transparency, accountability and democracy.
That is why NUS Scotland is supporting and campaigning in favour of this Bill. So, let’s talk honestly about the Bill and what it will actually mean for our institutions.
The Claim: The Bill abolishes rectors and removes a vital voice for staff and students!
The Reality: The Bill would actually extend the benefit of rectors/elected chairs of governing bodies to every university in Scotland
Rectors are not being abolished – and the Scottish Government has repeatedly stated this. With open elections, the Bill would extend the rights of staff and students at every university in Scotland to elect the most senior person on their governing body.
Rectors are a great part of Scottish educational history; a position ahead of its time when first introduced. They remain an important part of helping ensure the interests of staff and students are front and centre. But the opportunity to elect representatives can’t be a tradition that is only available to our ancient institutions.
Elected chairs of governing bodies should be in place at all of our universities and this will only serve to strengthen and extend the vital voice of staff and students. Even more importantly, we want rectors with the respect and position they deserve, being the genuinely most senior person on a governing body, with the position and respect they deserve.
The Claim: Legislation is an intrusion into the autonomy of universities! It’s a power grab by the government!
The Reality: Legislation governing universities isn’t new. It’s been around since 1858. If done right, it gives no extra power to the government, and a lot of extra power to staff and students.
The way some people have reacted to the Bill you would think that our universities exist in a legislation-free world; they don’t. The Universities Scotland Acts of 1858, 1889, 1922, 1932, and 1966 all deal with the constitution and governance of our oldest universities. From the powers of governing bodies to who sits on them; legislation isn’t new, it’s literally as old the universities that are most stridently resisting the most recent reforms. Done properly, the Bill should give no extra power to Government.
Yes, we would like more specific detail in the Bill – but we see it as a work in progress and will be working hard to ensure that the Bill is amended at stage 2 to put that detail in. We would hope to do that in collaboration with the sector, in a reasoned way. But the beginnings of the parliamentary process are about principles, and those are undoubtedly good – to improve the democracy, transparency and accountability of our universities, and ensure more power is put in the hands of staff and students to achieve that.
The Claim: The Bill would cause the financial ruin of our universities!
The Reality: At best it’s an assumption, and there’s no evidence to support it
Wild figures have been thrown around in recent weeks about the financial implications this would have, based on two improbabilities of losing charitable status and being reclassified as public bodies. Now, the charity regulatory OSCR has been clear in its submission to the Bill consultation that the Bill “should not…impact on the institutions’ charitable status”. So that’s that.
Those opposing the Bill have also claimed that it will lead to ONS reclassification as public bodies and, in turn, less money for universities. This is all based on trying to draw a (false) parallel with what happened with colleges.
While the Post-16 Education Act did result in the reclassification of colleges as public bodies, colleges never had charitable status in the first place, and college chairs are now ministerial appointments - vastly different to the HE Governance Bill’s proposal to give staff and students the power of appointment through open and democratic elections.
So, what’s our position?
The HE Governance Bill is a huge opportunity to rebalance the power of governing bodies, increasing transparency and accountability for those decisions that affect students’ lives, and the democratic means for staff and students to effect those. It’s about time that university governing boards reflected our university communities. This shouldn’t be a hard fight, or something that we should accept no moves to address.
We know more diverse groups make better decisions. People with varied experiences, backgrounds and viewpoints bring a lot more to the table than the usual suspects we see, year in year out, and will make decisions that positively impact students and staff, rather than concentrating on the bottom line.
An absolutely vital part of that is by ensuring democracy and transparency, through elections, for governing body chairs, and defined, legal representation for staff and student unions. This Bill should push against the marketization of education in Scotland, and enhances the proudest parts of our history.
Ultimately, we actually believe the Bill could and should go further - and will be working across the sector to try and ensure it does. On fair representation, we are still falling well short on making sure our governing bodies reflect the diverse communities they serve. And on senior pay, university principals are still receiving eye-watering sums of money, and more in expenses and benefits, with no transparency and scrutiny from staff or students.
Our universities are charities in receipt of well over a billion pounds of public funding each year. They aren’t big businesses, existing to serve the interests of shareholders. They exist for a charitable and educational purpose, and should be serving staff and students, and the wider communities they sit within but are so often far removed from. That’s what this Bill is about and we’re glad that something is finally being done to recognise that.