Magazine article Times Higher Education

Tensions Rise over Scottish G Overnance Bill

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Tensions Rise over Scottish G Overnance Bill

Article excerpt

Universities sweat potential impacts, but little discussion at SNP conference. John Morgan writes

Scotland's education secretary has stressed that further talks on the controversial higher education governance bill will involve unions and students, not universities alone, as tensions grow over claims that the legislation could lead to universities' being reclassified as public sector bodies.

Angela Constance, the Scottish government Cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, made the comments at a fringe meeting during the Scottish National Party's conference on 16 October.

Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, had said the previous week during first minister's questions - after being urged by Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson to drop a bill that universities "hate" - that "we will continue to engage with the universities and discuss these issues".

Some observers read that as paving the way to potential amendments to the bill to reflect universities' concerns. But others point out that the bill is at the first stage of its progress through the Scottish Parliament, meaning that further consultation is standard.

Among other things, Universities Scotland has objected to plans for elected chairs of governing bodies if chosen by an electorate other than the governing body itself.

The organisation also warns that by giving ministers powers over governing bodies, including that of determining how chairs are selected, the bill may prompt the Office for National Statistics to reclassify Scottish universities as part of the public sector and also jeopardise their charitable status. Both developments would deal significant financial blows to universities.

The bill, which has been welcomed by the University and College Union and the National Union of Students, follows a 2012 review of governance by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the principal of Robert Gordon University.

'Door has been and remains open'

Despite speaking at two higher education fringe events held at the SNP conference in Aberdeen, Ms Constance offered only one brief comment on the bill, in answer to a question from Times Higher Education. With sensitivities over the bill running high, it appeared that ministers and universities alike were reluctant to debate the issue in public.

Asked if she shared Ms Sturgeon's view that there could be more talks with universities, and what the key points of discussion would be, Ms Constance said: "The door has been open for consultation since the bill was introduced. …

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