6. To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on the reported comments by Universities Scotland that “Universities are autonomous legal entities” and that “The appointment procedures for the university’s principal is a matter for each institution’s governing body”. (S3F-2953)
We must remember that Scottish universities are responsible for spending around £1.1 billion of taxpayers’ money. It is therefore essential that they have a proper balance between legitimate autonomy, of course, but also accountability to the public purse.
Elizabeth Smith will be aware that a group of some 200 academics from the University of Glasgow have put their names to a paper that calls for greater democracy within university management. They have suggested that principals should go through a confirmatory election before they are appointed.
That is an interesting and radical suggestion. Given the obvious strength of feeling among academics, it is only right that their proposal is properly discussed and debated before the Government takes a view.
It is good to hear that the Scottish Government is very supportive of robust, transparent and autonomous processes. They can perhaps be enhanced, but many are already in place.
Will the First Minister agree that another advantage of introducing a graduate contribution, apart from ensuring that the universities would receive more money, which they require, is that such a system would make the leaders of those institutions even more accountable to students and staff?
No. I think that the Conservative party’s suggestions would have the danger of not awarding places in higher education and university education on the basis of ability, as opposed to the basis of ability to pay. I do not agree with the direction of travel of the Conservative party in this chamber, nor do I agree with the direction of travel of the coalition Government in Westminster, which seems intent on a wholesale withdrawal of state funding from higher education.
One of the advantages that I believe we have is that the balance of thinking in this Parliament and this country sees a totally different and better future for higher education and our students.
I think that the First Minister said that universities and their practices have been very much in the news recently—the University of Glasgow in particular, but also other universities throughout Scotland. Does the First Minister agree that universities cannot remain static? They need to change, and they must respond to the concerns raised, becoming more accountable and transparent. As I think that the First Minister said, they are, after all, public institutions.
We should remember for a second that Scotland’s ancient universities in particular were founded on a principle that is, I think, unique in terms of university governance. The rector who chaired the court of many of those universities was elected by the academic body and by the student body as a whole. Let us not bring ourselves to believe that democratic accountability would be a novel idea for Scottish universities. In many ways, democratic accountability to the academic and student body would be a reassertion of one of the founding principles of Scottish universities.