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Disquiet about the governance of Scottish universities

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Cuts to courses, while pay packages for principals and senior staff have increased to the point where 88 university employees earn more than the First Minister, have been a focus for disquiet about the governance of universities among academics and students.

The Scottish Government appointed a panel of representatives of students and academic staff and a university rector, chaired by Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, which made recommendations for far greater involvement of academics and students in the governance of universities. The main thrust of the report was to bring greater transparency to university operations. For example, it called for students to be represented on the remuneration committees that determine principals´ salaries and trade union representation on university courts, the governing bodies.

It was well-received among staff and students but principals and governing bodies were unhappy with some recommendations. As a result, a group of the chairs of the Scottish university courts were asked to produce a draft code of conduct. It watered down most of the proposals for greater transparency. But universities are largely dependent on public funding, so autonomy must be balanced with public accountability. Neither academic freedom nor standards would be undermined by widening participation in decision-making processes at institutions.

The greatest unrest among staff was caused when decisions to close courses were apparently made on financial rather than academic grounds. The von Prondzynski panel´s recommendation that all chairs of university courts should be elected was omitted from the chairs´ draft code of governance despite this building on the office of rector, elected by the student body of the ancient universities, to chair the court.

Expanding this historic element to the whole of Scottish higher education is not a dangerously radical step. Adopting it would increase democratic accountability in universities. The divide between the draft code drawn up by the chairs and the Prondzynski review is the result of differing views on what constitutes good governance.

Autonomy lies at the heart of the current divergence of views but robust institutions can only benefit by opening their decision-making to scrutiny by those directly affected; in other words, staff and students in the first instance. They have a key role in the economic, cultural and technological wellbeing of the country and in helping to represent the interests of society as a whole.

Source: Herald Scotland


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