An attack on freedom of thought?

For reasons that no-one wants to be bored with (and that I confess I don’t fully understand), we in Scotland seem to be having quite a fight over the Higher Education Governance Bill that’s now before the Scottish Parliament, based on the von Prondzynski report. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s quite an esoteric subject to be fighting over (and I would agree), but the provisions of the bill have come under fire as giving Scottish Ministers too much power over the operation of the universities. The warnings you see in the press have been dire. Here are assorted worthies at the University of Edinburgh (where I work) calling for the bill to be scrapped; here is Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who heads the Royal Society of Edinburgh (Scotland’s national academy), worrying about its impact on the reputation of Scottish universities; here are our friends at St Andrews warning it will damage the economy; and here is Nick Cohen calling it no less than an attack on freedom of thought. Here’s a quote from Cohen’s piece summing up the problem.

At the last minute, the SNP has slipped three clauses into the Higher -Education Governance Bill currently before the Scottish parliament. They give ministers the power to use secondary legislation to impose unspecified conditions on universities without consultation.

Sounds scary! And all this, of course, falls neatly into the narrative of a centralizing, controlling SNP government that is intent on getting independence by hook or by crook, whether it be by debasing local government (i.e. the council tax freeze), taking away local accountability in the police service (via the creation of Police Scotland), or imposing a nationalist curriculum on impressionable primary school children (I’ve heard that one numerous times, though I’m not entirely sure what this means — answers on a postcard please). It’s all part of the SNP’s power-grabbing, anti-democratic instinct.

Now one thing gets lost in the sound and the fury, and that is actual university governance. As far as I can see, the big deal is that the bill allows Scottish Ministers to set out regulations for selecting the chair of the universities’ governing bodies, with particular reference to the pre-election stage where requirements may be set out regarding candidates’ eligibility, the interview process, etc. This has been claimed (e.g. by our very own Rector Steve Morrison, here) to be tantamount to a dismantling of the democratic governance model of the ancient Scottish universities by abolishing an elected rector, although one of Morrison’s predecessors, Iain Macwhirter, disagrees with that interpretation.

Now, why is this happening? Well, it does seem to be about accountability. Here’s what the policy memorandum for the bill says:

The [von Prondzynski] Review highlighted the importance of a rigorous and transparent process for appointing a chair of a governing body. This was also addressed in the [voluntary] Code. While implementation of the Code has, to some extent, increased the level of transparency across the sector in relation to appointing a chair, there remains no guarantee of consistency across the sector and, in practice, HEIs have adopted different approaches.


The Bill aims to establish a required minimum level of openness, transparency and consistency across all HEIs.

It’s slightly airy management-speak, but it’s quite a leap of faith from these provisions to envisaging a vetting of rectorial candidates by a panel of SNP ministers that seems to be the big worry.

For me, the worry is that these provisions are being used to urge the government to drop the entire bill. But the bill doesn’t just mess with governing body chairs. For instance, it provides for quotas for staff, union, and student representatives — and if you look at the policy memorandum it notes that in particular the presence of union representatives was opposed by the HEIs. This objection doesn’t strike me as being born of a particular worry for academic freedom.

Before I proceed, two disclaimers. First, this is not about party politics: I am a member of Scottish Green Party and do not support the SNP generally. I worry about this because it concerns my work. Second, although I’m going to be rather uncomplimentary about university leaders, overall I’m fairly happy with how management operates at my university. Of course, we do engage in some less productive activities, but at our place they’re either part of how the sector generally operates (Trac returns anyone?) or imposed on the sector from outside (like playing at immigration officials by taking attendance in lectures). At Edinburgh my experience is that we’re mostly left to get on with teaching and research — I’m not a disgruntled employee, I’m just concerned about the principles.

Still, I do take issue with the idea that you can easily get from the media that the Bill is uniformly opposed in ivory towers up and down the country, with statements invariably made on behalf of ‘the academy’ or ‘the universities’. Well, I for one am pretty sure nobody asked me, and I’m equally sure I don’t think the bill should be dropped, because it does provide a degree of accountability that’s currently missing (again, disclaimer: if you look at Edinburgh’s Court, we do have staff and student, though not union, representation, so it’s not necessarily just about my patch). And it’s not like the bill introduces mob rule by feminist student union politicians and airy-fairy social anthropologists. Here’s our Rector Steve Morrison again:

I strongly believe that Edinburgh’s Rectorial model is the most democratic system.

I presume he means ‘in Scotland’. Or at least I hope he does. Because it’s just blatantly not true if you look beyond Scotland’s borders. My doctorate is from the University of Tromsø in Norway, where we directly elected the principal and the two vice-principals for research and teaching & learning. That’s right — not Rectors, whose role is important but more about advocacy than hands-on control, but actual principals who do the day-to-day running of the university, can be directly elected by a constituency including academic and non-academic staff and all current students. It may be a good or a bad system (certainly in Norway there seems to be a recent movement towards appointed principals, which is also allowed), but it sure as hell is more democratic than what we have even at the ancient universities in Scotland.

In fact, it is quite instructive to look at the Norwegian university legislation, Universitets- og høyskoleloven. Here’s what it has to say about the composition of governing bodies (my translation):

(1) The board has eleven members and consists of the chair, three members elected from among teaching and research staff, one member elected from among technical and administrative staff, two members elected from among students, and four external members. If the principal has been elected as provided for by §10–1, the principal chairs the board. If the principal has been appointed as provided for by §10–4, the principal is replaced by one of the members chosen from among teaching and research staff, and the ministers appoint one of the external members as the chair.
(2) The board can itself decide on a composition different from that described in the first paragraph. Such a decision shall be approved by a two-thirds majority of the board members. Teaching and research staff, technical and administrative staff, students and external representatives shall be adequately represented on the board. None of these groups shall form a majority on its own. [Students shall form at least 20% of the governing body, and where that equals to one student, there shall be another non-voting student member]
(3) The board itself can decide that there shall be a majority of external members. Such a decision shall be approved by a two-thirds majority of the board members. Teaching and research staff, technical and administrative staff, students and external representatives shall be adequately represented on the board. [Same rules for student members as above]
(4) Board members and the principal have a right to reasonable remuneration, following rules determined by the board. Ministers can approve remuneration guidelines for board members and the chair of the board.
(5) In special cases the ministers can decree a composition of the board different from that described in (1) or decided upon under (2) or (3).

It’s a long quotation, but then these are quite detailed rules! It allows for direct elections, for instance(at Edinburgh staff representatives are nominated by the Senate). And (5) seems to me be giving ministers a similar level of discretion to that envisaged in the Scottish bill.

Here’s what the Norwegian law says on the election of principals:

(1) Unless the board has decided otherwise in accordance with §10–4, the principal is elected. Both the HEI’s staff and external candidates may be elected. The board can decide on specific rules for nominating external candidates
(2) The election term is normally four years. No-one shall be re-elected as a principal if they will have been in that position for eight years at the start of the new term.
(4) At the count, the votes shall be weighted using a scheme determined by the board, within the following restrictions
a) teaching and research staff: 51–71%
b) technical and administrative staff: 5–25%
c) students: 15–30%
If the election is conducted by an electoral college, the college’s composition shall follow these rules.
(5) The board shall determine the specific rules of the election.

Now this is clearly in some respects less restrictive than the Scottish bill, but it’s still incredibly detailed. I wonder what the Scottish principals would say if the SNP proposed a law that told them how to weight votes in an internal election. Nothing too complimentary I’m sure. We would probably be seeing thunderous diatribes against terrible attacks on academic freedom and the Nats’ dastardly centralizing instincts. Hang on–we are hearing that already. What awful, Orwellian places these Norwegian universities must be.

(There is a story to be told here about how the big difference between actual Nordic countries and wannabe-Nordic Scotland seems to be level of trust in institutions, but I’ve already gone on for quite a bit.)

I guess my point, much like Iain Macwhirter’s, or EUSA president Jonny Ross-Tatam’s, is this. The bill is clearly meant to restrict the freedom of Scottish universities’ current governing bodies to appoint whoever they want however they want. You may agree or disagree with this objective as a matter of expediency, but I really can’t see how doing so is undemocratic and a threat to fundamental freedoms — after all, Norway seems to be doing fine with not at all dissimilar regulations on university governance. By all means, criticize individual provisions and lobby other parties at Holyrood to force amendments. But blindly following the line of thought that this is a bonfire of freedoms and that the entirety of the bill is some kind of fundamental attack on university autonomy means that we can’t have a serious conversation about how to engage the university communities (on whose behalf, remember, the dire warnings are being issued) in governance. Don’t make this conversation about the SNP and its view of freedom, if you actually care about how universities are run. Don’t use this is just another stick to beat the Nats with — let’s talk about the measures that should and shouldn’t be in the bill. Let’s not drop the whole thing just because you don’t like the Nats or the idea of mandatory union representation. Let’s just talk, all right?