By Dave Anderson, UCU Scotland President
Indeed universities are not John Lewis, or Amazon, Tesco or any other large corporate entity with a focus on profit and a primary responsibility to maximise returns for shareholders. As I said to Hollyrood.com “Universities are a collegiate body of staff and students working within their local community” to deliver learning, teaching, scholarship and research to meet the cultural, civic and economic needs of Scotland and the wider international community.
Governance models shape the operation and direction of organisations, which is why the current HE governance code, produced by the Scottish Chairs of Courts and which borrows much from corporations and the private sector, serves our universities so poorly. There are many examples of failures in corporate governance, from the banking crisis to misreporting of financial statements, but these are not of themselves why a business based governance model is inappropriate for HE. Fundamentally our university sector in Scotland depends on the collegiate nature of academic endeavour, where freedom of enquiry is protected and encouraged, and where engagement and involvement is drawn as widely as possible. In short universities are not a business and should not be governed as such.
In any discussion of governance before deciding on the “how” it is essential to agree on the “what”. It was partly in an attempt to address the “what” that UCU Scotland joined with other campus unions to host the “Re-imagining the University” conference in October 2014. This conference posed the questions: What are Universities for? Who do they belong to? How should they be governed? The overwhelming view expressed was that Scotland’s universities should remain primarily publicly funded; with a requirement to promote the public good through education and research; with governance structures that were democratic, transparent and accountable and that provided an academic voice (staff and student) in decision making at all levels.
Kezia Dugdale, then Labour Education spokesperson, used her address to the conference to signal Scottish Labour’s wish to continue with no undergraduate student fees (and hence further underline the “public” nature of Scotland’s HE institutions) while the then Cabinet Secretary Michael Russell again made clear his support for the von Prondzynski report and of the SNP governments commitment to legislate for full implementation of the report’s recommendations.
Angela Constance as Education Secretary is to be congratulated for taking forward that commitment to legislate. The response of Principals and Chairs of Court is as disappointing as it is unsurprising. In submissions to the von Prondzynski review as well as in their subsequent adoption of a “new” code of governance, university leaders have argued that nothing should be changed, indeed suggesting that any tinkering risks the excellence already achieved. Such stasis will only enshrine overbearing managerialism, with targets and performance indicators replacing the academic freedom and true innovation essential to an institution’s long term future.
Radical measures are needed to protect and grow Scotland’s public higher education system. Accountable and transparent governance structures which fully involve staff and students, with Rectors democratically elected and empowered to chair university courts, where campus union nominees can express a range of opinions and where the composition of governing bodies properly reflects diversity and equality may not appear particularly radical, but it would be a start.