McArthur: Ministers second-guessing university governance

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur MSP has this evening expressed disappointment that the Scottish Government has not backed his calls for exemptions to the Higher Education (Governance) Bill in keeping with diversity in the university sector. 

The Bill, which aims to alter the existing governance system of universities in Scotland, was today debated for the final time by MSPs.

In his speech to Parliament Mr McArthur said: “Our university sector is genuinely world-class but this does not mean that our universities cannot be improved. Adapting to changing needs, expectations and circumstances is the only way to protect and enhance standards and reputation.

“In our Higher Education sector, however we have something to celebrate, value and respect. One of sector’s great strengths is its differences, from the variety of institutions to the diversity of staff and student populations.

“It is absolutely right therefore that the governance of our universities properly and transparently reflect that diversity.

“That means giving effective voice to students and staff in the decisions that affect the institutions and ensuring governing bodies look, sound and act like those they represent.

“How this is achieved however is a legitimate question and it is territory over which politicians should tread with care. That however has not been the watchword of the government.

“From the outset it has not been clear what the problem is that Ministers are trying to fix. Little evidence has been produced to justify the approach or explain what international comparators we are trying to emulate. Ultimately there has been an inability to explain how this bill will make our university sector better.

“Proposals have been unveiled often with little or no consultation only then to be withdrawn or heavily amended once the full implications have been spelt out.

“This has left universities in collective despair.

“Fortunately the Cabinet Secretary backed down from her game of chicken with ONS over the threat of financially disastrous university reclassification. But a mess is still being made in the confusion created by the overlapping roles and mandates of rectors and elected senior lay members.

“This despite solemn promises by the Minister not to meddle. Even then it may have been possible to limit the damage if the government had accepted my amendment on exemptions.

“This would have enabled the Conservatoire, the Glasgow School of Art and others with a strong case to be exempted from provisions within this bill to have their case heard and where appropriate respected.

“That would have been in keeping with the diversity of the sector.

“All the evidence shows the best performing universities world-wide are those exercising the greatest level of responsible autonomy. They should be accountable, transparent and reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

“How this is best achieved though should not be second guessed by Ministers using the blunt instrument of legislation.”

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