On 9 October UCU Scotland joined with our sister campus trade unions EIS and UNISON to organise a conference focusing on the future of higher education in Scotland after the referendum. The conference, titled ‘Reimagining the University’, asked three fundamental questions of importance not just to UCU Scotland members and staff in our universities, but also to the sector generally and the wider community. More than 130 delegates came together to ask what are our universities in Scotland for; who do they belong to; and how should they be governed?
The importance and topicality of that debate was shown by the prominence of the keynote speakers who were drawn to come and speak and engage with UCU members on the day. The Cabinet Secretary for Education Mike Russell gave the keynote speech; with significant other contributions from Kezia Dugdale MSP, Labour’s education spokesperson, and the chair of the Scottish Funding Council, Professor Alice Brown.
There was good press coverage from the main addresses to the conference with Chris Havergal from the Times Higher Education writing an article on Mike Russell calling for more powers for the Scottish Parliament to allow post study work visas for international students and committing the Scottish Government to legislate on outstanding elements of the von Prondzynski review including elected chairs of governing bodies. The conference also heard Kezia Dugdale indicate the direction of travel on student funding in her party and that she was hopeful they would rule out the introduction of tuition fees in Scotland.
These are important and significant announcements and support the broad policy positions of UCU Scotland and the other unions on student funding and HE governance. But the conference wasn’t just about politicians giving prewritten speeches from the top table. There were important discussions amongst delegates on the three issues the conference examined during the breakout sessions with contributions from a number of contributors who had been invited to help inform the discussion. These included Professor Mike Neary from the University of Lincoln who outlined their ‘student as producer’ programme and the steps being taken locally to pursue a co-operative model of higher education provision. Other speakers included Liam Kane form the University of Glasgow, green party activist and Rector at Edinburgh University Peter McColl, Robin McAlpine from the Common Weal campaign and student leaders from NUS Scotland including current President Gordon Maloney, who reiterated his and NUS Scotland’s support for UCUS in the pensions dispute.
The answers to the three questions posed at the start of the conference – what are universities for; who do they belong to and how should they be governed – are too big to be satisfactorily answered in a single day at a conference in Edinburgh. However we did make significant progress. We do know now that there will be Scottish Government legislation to tackle some of the governance issues that the von Prondzynski review highlighted. And we also know that when UCU engages with Scotland’s politicians, of all parties, that we can influence them to the benefit of the sector we work in. We need to continue to do that as individual members, in our branches and as a national union. At a Scottish level we’ll be working to draw out some of the main themes from the conference, holding the politicians to account and to argue for universities and institutions that are publically funded without student tuition fees; that are well governed and accountable to staff and the communities they exist in; and which don’t use zero hours or casualised contracts for staff.
You can view highlights from the conference below.
Cabinet Secretary for Education, Mike Russell
Alice Brown, Scottish Funding Council
Kezia Dugdale MSP
How Should Universities be Governed? (full debate)