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education, scotland

Rectors are Scotland’s great contribution to university governance. So why should only the “ancient” have elected chairs?

As the Herald reported yesterday, the chairs of Scotland’s universities are up in arms about the Government’s Higher Education (HE) Bill. Nothing surprising in that, you say, we’ve been told for months that the SNP is trying to abolish Scotland’s elected rectors, with their historic right to chair university governing bodies (courts) and replace them with vetted stooges.

A campaign to Save Our Rectors has been running for more than a year, led by the former rector of Edinburgh University, Gordon Brown. “We are extremely concerned that the Scottish Government is seeking to abolish the right of rectors to chair university courts,” he wrote in a letter in September signed by former rectors including the TV presenter Muriel Gray. “The SNP is playing fast and loose with the democratic traditions of Scotland,” he said.

Only in this latest epistle, the chairs of Scotland’s universities seem to be arguing something rather different. Indeed, they are condemning the Government’s HE Bill precisely because it proposes to extend the principle of elected chairs, that is rectors, to all of Scotland’s universities and higher education institutions.

“The proposal that chairs of governing bodies should be chosen by a public election,” they write in a letter to Education Secretary Angela Constance, “will reverse the excellent progress that has been made towards achieving equality and diversity within this important role.”

But how can that be? Are they arguing for rectors, the elected chairs of court, to be abolished? Will Ms Gray start a social media campaign calling for the chairs of court to take their grubby hands of our elected chairs? Do they want rectors to chair court or not?

The truth is that, although rectors do formally chair university courts, they do not sit on an obscure body called the Committee of University Chairs (CUC), which is composed of appointees – usually bankers, lawyers and ex civil servants – chosen, essentially, by the university vice chancellors. CUC is a misnomer: it is actually the Committee of Unelected Chairs.

These shadow chairs are often highly capable people, giving very able service. But let’s be absolutely clear: they are not elected and they are not rectors. The HE Bill did not intend to abolish rectors but to extend the principle of election to those universities where rectors don’t exist. Only the “ancient” universities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow have rectors at present.

The Save our Rectors campaign was always disingenuous because anyone who knew the background to the HE Bill knew that the Government did not intend to abolish the elected rector’s right to chair university courts. The “hands off” campaign was inspired by the lobbyists for Universities Scotland – the principals’ trades union – as a means of killing the bill.

Essentially, the Committee of Unelected Chairs represents the interests of the university establishment who fear elected chairs would put them out of a job. “None of us”, the Scottish chairs say,” would have stood as a candidate in a publicly adversarial election.” Well, I’m sorry, but democracy is adversarial. It can be messy and you might get the wrong types.

But, as Churchill noted, it is the worst form of governance except for all the others; and remember the rector is only one post. The principal will still call the shots, with all the other members of the unelected great and the good who sit on university governing bodies.

Anyway, there is no shortage of able people willing to serve as rectors, like Mr Brown himself. The proposal from the 2012 Prondzynski Report on university governance, which inspired the HE Bill, was simply to extend elected rectors to other higher education institutions and give the existing ones proper resources to do the job.

The CUC’s claim that election of chairs would hinder “diversity and equality” is highly revealing. The argument appears to be that the principal and the unelected governors will not be able to appoint the “right people” to chair the court. Well, that’s fine in one-party states but not here.

However, I’m grateful to the chairs for finally making clear what this row is really all about. It isn’t a red revolution and/or an SNP takeover and it certainly isn’t abolishing rectors. Elected chairs will introduce a very modest degree of democratic accountability to institutions that spend huge sums of public money without any transparency whatever.

Elected rectors are Scotland’s great contribution to higher education governance so why should only the posh universities have them?

From Herald, 9/2/16

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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