By Pat Kane. First published on OCTOBER 31ST, 2015
WHAT do free-market fundamentalists The Institute of Directors, and revolutionary info-warrior Edward Snowden, have in common? Well, they both have a problem with the Scottish Government’s University Higher Education Governance Bill (or “HE Bill”), to be debated in Holyrood next week.
They both seem to have roughly the same problem – that the Bill threatens political interference in the affairs of universities – but for different reasons.
The first (the IoD) worries that if universities begin to look like they’re part of a public sector controlled by government, and not like independent charities, they’ll lose out on countless millions in tax breaks and donations.
The second (who also happens to be the elected Rector of Glasgow University) worries that the Bill might give politicians undue power to dictate to universities how they should run their internal affairs. It represents, said Snowden in a recent webcast address, “a real threat to the financial and academic independence of the university system of the oldest universities in Scotland”.
In my opinion they’re both wrong. Alongside the Lobbying Bill and the Land Reform Bill, this is actually an example of the Scottish Government trying to use what powers it has to democratise public life in Scotland - in this instance, to widen input into the managerial echelons of higher education.
But its willpower is being sorely tested by vested interests, who (in Robin McAlpine’s words) want to keep us “a land of lairds and self-appointed governing structures”.
In this view, university bosses who could easily imagine themselves as “Chief Executive Officers” of their “Knowledge PLCs” are the establishment in question. As for the IoD’s charity worry, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator has said that the legislation “would not affect the constitutions of higher education institutions in ways that would give ministers the power to direct or control these institutions’ activities”.
Around the Higher Education Bill, the lightning rod for much of this power struggle has become the “threat” to the traditional role of the Rector. This is the process in the “ancient” Universities – meaning Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee and St Andrews – whereby the chair of the “Court”, the university’s governing body, is a “Rector” elected by students (and in some instances by staff too).
Now, as far as I can read it, much of the Bill is about widening the range of stakeholders (including student and union reps) that can sit on the average university court. This includes the right to elect the chair of that court from the same wider, cross-campus constituency from which Rectors have been historically chosen.
But even though the Bill seems to be in the spirit of rectorship, there does seem to be some ScotGov fastidiousness about calling this elected chair a “Rector” (a “chairing member” is the preferred piece of bureaucratese).
It would be easy, surely, to join up the ancient with the modern here – to repurpose an old name for a contemporary model of democratic practice. I wonder why they haven’t?
Could it be that the role of the stroppy, unpredictable Rector is one that civil servants and educational mandarins have been desperate to erase for many years? If so – at least in terms of this particular administration - it would be the most almighty cheek.
There are a number of leading current politicians – the First Minister, the Health and Wellbeing Minister, the Culture Minister, the Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, and the SNP’s Westminster Spokesperson for Social Justice, Work and Pensions – who were once fiery student Nationalists in Glasgow University, at the cusp of the 90s.
Over beers in the QMU, they once had a braw notion: why not put a Scot-Nat candidate up against Tony Benn in the 1990 Rectorial elections? Reader, I confess: I was that successful donkey with a yellow-and-black rosette.
I also recall that many of them urged me to besmirch my gold-braided position, by doing a Rectorial walk-out on a 1992 Commemoration Day ceremony (a certain young Ms Sturgeon was particularly gung-ho). This was to happen exactly as George Younger – the ex-Tory minister who had abolished student grants – went up the carpet to get his honorary degree.
I duly did so, the press fulminated, my mammy was affronted – and from that point on the University Court directed barely a murmur in my direction over my last six months of office.
The reason why people defend the election of Rectors, and their right to chair the Court (the governing body) of an ancient Scottish university, is exactly because it represents a long-standing principle of democracy in the Scots educational tradition.
If we accept that a university can be defined as a “community of scholars”, then the elected Rector gives those scholars power and voice at the heart of a university’s management and administration. Now, it’s not as if the Rectorship is a historically perfect device for this. It seems unnecessarily quirky that all universities don’t follow the Edinburgh example - where the electorate includes staff as well as students.
And some of the imperfections in Rectors come from the vitality and idealism of these scholars themselves. You’d expect them to be interested in the grander ethical, political and intellectual questions, and not just in the day-to-day grind of managing budgets and keeping student numbers up.
In terms of elected rectors, so it has proved. As Rector at Glasgow, I superseded Winnie Mandela, an absentee rector but a hugely political and symbolic appointment. Snowden isn’t quite as much an absentee – he does beam in speeches across the web from Russia – but clearly can’t chair the Court.
There are of course B-plans in place for this, whereby an effective and present chair is agreed and appointed. However grumpy it makes the university management, the opportunity to use a Rectorship for political symbolism is one of the unpredictable joys of the process.
But yes, there are a lot of bizarre names among the lists of the last few decades of Scottish rectors. Light entertainers from our major broadcasters have seemed overly popular, and often of dubious utility (Glasgow’s Ross Kemp was actually removed from his post, for gross non-attendance).
So there is a question for the Rectorial tradition to answer here. How do you ensure consistent and high-quality candidates for the chairing of the University Court? Trust to a wider and better process of campus democracy, would seem to be the best answer. My own experience as a Rector was that university governance works best when the natural tension between the scholarly community, and their managers and administrators, was fully acknowledged.
Towards the end of the HE Bill in its present form, there is a defence of “academic freedom” – the right to free and fearless thinking and research – which, to my eyes, is as robust as you could wish.
But that doesn’t always sit well with the university-as-business – bending over backwards to appeal to world educational markets, or constraining academic courses to fit funding streams that “benefit the knowledge economy”. These strategic tensions are real, not to be managed away.
But a great university should be a magnificent argument, as much as it is a corporate entity. Let’s remind our Scottish political leaders that the job of any new legislation is to sustain this dynamic. Better than anyone, they should know.