Imagine if Scotland’s universities were ran democratically

One of the bills currently going through the Scottish Parliament is the Higher Education Governance Bill, which seeks to make the way Universities are governed in Scotland marginally more democratic. It hasn’t received much attention, probably because the proposals are relatively minor, but it does at least provide the opportunity to think about the question of how these enormously important public bodies might be managed. It lets us imagine how Universities might operate if they were genuine democracies.

I’d hope that the need for Universities to be ran democratically would be obvious, given both that they are public institutions with large budgets, and that the decisions they make have a significant impact on society at large. To further see why this issue is important consider a few noteworthy examples of unaccountable Universities decision makers exercising questionable judgement: investing in Arms and fossil fuels, calling for higher tuition fees, huge salaries for University heads while those at the bottom earn less than a living wage etc. etc. Now consider how much easier it would be to fix these issues if universities were more democratic.

The key proposals in the Bill with respect to governance are:

  1. Elections of Chairs of governing bodies of Institutions
  2. Regulations on the make-up of the Governing Body, including the inclusion of Trade Union representatives and directly elected academic representatives).

(For a more detailed outline of what these proposals are see for example explanatory document)

On the first point it is important to recognise that the Chair of the governing body is not the head of the university, but the person who chairs the meetings of the governing body, although there is a lot of variation between universities as to what this entails. At the University of Edinburgh for example the Chair is the Rector, which is a largely ceremonial position elected directly by staff and students at the University.  Part of the Scottish Government’s proposal is that the Chair may be elected at the final stage of the selection process (i.e. after the candidates have been pre-selected). At Edinburgh at least this would be a considerable step backwards.

The most interesting proposal then is number two. It recommends that the governing body should include at least 2 student representatives, two directly elected members of staff, and two members appointed by trade unions (one academic and one support staff). These fairly modest proposals are being resisted by Scotland’s universities (by which I mean their governing bodies, since as far as I know the students and staff at large were not consulted). All but one of the universities or university groups who responded to the government’s consultation opposed the proposals, though it was supported by union,s business groups and student groups. Universities typically argued that Union representatives would argue for the interests of their constituents and not the best interests of the University which would lead to bad governance, and that ring-fencing positions for trade union members was undemocratic.

To think about these arguments consider an example. The governing body of the University of Edinburgh (the institution I know best) is the University Court. Its membership includes a number of co-opted members, including a former chief accountant of Standard Life (finance), the Chairman of Arup Scotland (professional services), a Director of the John Wood Group (fossil fuels), a CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland (finance), a chartered banker and a Chief Investment Officer of Aberdeen Asset Management. Why anyone thinks these are the kind of people to whom we should entrust our universities is beyond me, and having a couple of trade union representatives to begin to counter-balance these interests can only be a step forward.

Overall though I find the bill leaves a lot to be desired. The Bill proposes that the overall composition of governing bodies be largely left to the rules of the institution itself, meaning members such as those listed above may still be co-opted without consultation. One of the responses to the consultation that was more interesting came from Common Weal, which echoes my thoughts on this matter almost entirely. Building on its report ‘The Democratic University’ it proposes simply that:

The solution to this is simple; all members of governing bodies should be elected by the wider university community based on a prospectus of how they would plan to steer that university. The chair of the governing body should then be elected from within the overall governing body by the members of that governing body.

To me this seems like a pretty good place to start.

Unsurprisingly this was not adopted by the Scottish Government when the Bill was published last month, although the core proposals remain. The Bill is currently at stage 1 of its passage through parliament, let’s see what happens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *