For the purposes of rule 9.11 of the standing orders, I wish to advise the Parliament that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interests, so far as they are affected by the bill, at the disposal of the Parliament for the purposes of the bill.
I am pleased to be able to present the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill at stage 3 and to seek Parliament’s support for it. The bill enables key principles and values to underpin governance in our higher education institutions—transparency, democracy, inclusion, participation and accountability. The bill is in step with a modern Scotland where participation in democratic processes must be nurtured and encouraged.
No one with even passing knowledge of the bill can have failed to notice the often vigorous debate on its provisions, but I have listened carefully and consistently to all the views offered. Indeed, a range of constructive ideas has influenced alteration of the bill as introduced and amended at stages 2 and 3.
I have been, and remain, surprised at the level of opposition to the bill from some. It is important to remember that the bill’s origins flow from a substantial review of higher education governance in Scotland led by the principal of Robert Gordon University, Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, and it is also important that we all pause and reflect on the purpose of the bill and its intended benefits.
First, staff and students will get a say in future in who the best person is to lead the institution that they study and work in. With the election of a powerful chair, or senior lay member, in every institution, greater transparency and inclusivity will be introduced to the appointment process for that pivotal role.
The process between stage 1 and stage 2 of the bill was intended to give everyone with an interest in its measures the opportunity to co-design the detail of how that should work in practice. That applied particularly to the role of chair. I listened carefully to a wide range of views on that issue before agreeing that having some form of selection would enhance the election part of the process.
The cabinet secretary advocates a raison d’être for her bill, particularly in relation to what she considers to be the role of the chair. Is she aware of the following definition? It comes from the European Institute of Business Administration:
“A good chair knows who she works for and is ultimately accountable to the organisation of which board she leads. Not its stakeholders—shareowners, customers, employees, executives, but the institution itself.”
How does that definition reconcile with the form of governance proposed in the bill?
Miss Goldie has raised that issue before at previous debates in Parliament, and that is a point on which I differ from her. I think that a higher education institution is something far broader than a business, and it is important that the chair or senior lay person is accountable to the governing body but also to that wider community of staff and students.
We talked about the selection process earlier, and that is one of the reasons why I have included in the bill measures that afford institutions the ability to select candidates for election, so that they can demonstrate their ability to drive the further success of our higher education institutions.
I have also listened carefully to concerns about how the new senior lay member might impact on the traditional role of rector. It was never the intention of the Government to abolish the role in those institutions that have a rector, despite the rigorous attempts by some to portray the bill’s measures as such, so at stage 2 I also ensured that measures were included to protect the statutory and historical role of the rector in our ancient universities.
Rectors and senior lay members on the governing bodies of HEIs currently play different but complementary roles. This bill does not change that. With both the roles elected in future, it will be the responsibility of each autonomous institution to ensure that the campus electorate is clear on the dovetail that exists between the two roles. Some stakeholders have raised concerns that students and staff in institutions will be confused about those roles and about what they are voting for, but I have complete faith that students and staff will have little difficulty in working that out.
Next, the bill aims to ensure that the composition of each governing body is representative of the entire campus community. With a majority of lay members, staff members, student members and union members, a fair and balanced blend is created. The bill also ensures that academic boards or senates will feature a majority of elected staff and students, and adequate student representation in particular is very important.
I believe that the bill features a definition of academic freedom that protects the rights of staff while giving institutions a key role in assessing the reasonableness of any expression of academic freedom. That is an important balance, because academic freedom cannot be construed as a licence to break the law.
It is a fact that higher education institutions are autonomous, but in a tough financial settlement the Scottish Government has identified over £1 billion of direct grant investment in Scotland’s higher education sector, which will be delivered next year. Ensuring that access to higher education is free, teaching is of a high quality and research is supported to enable our institutions to contribute to our economic strategy is a price that is well worth paying when it comes to our overall aims of creating a fairer Scotland and a more prosperous economy.
As a society and a Government, we are entitled to expect higher education institutions to adhere to the highest standards of governance, and to be ambitious in seeking ways to continuously improve. Excellence is not a given, so I hope and expect that all of our institutions will embrace the changes that this bill introduces.
At its heart, the bill is about ensuring that all voices on campus are heard, are equal, and are empowered to contribute to decision making. We have heard before—and may hear again from some members today—about how bad an idea campus elections are, and about how talented people will be put off from applying for the post of elected chair or senior lay member. When I was preparing for today’s debate, I was reminded of the 1865 rectorial election at the University of Edinburgh, at which Thomas Carlyle faced up to Benjamin Disraeli. I am sure that members will agree that that was a shortlist that was not lacking in talent.
Thomas Carlyle won that election and gave an inaugural address to the students of the university on 2 April 1866, almost 150 years ago. Of course, there were no women in attendance, as women were not admitted to Scottish universities until 1892. However, I can still whole-heartedly agree with the view that Carlyle expressed in that address that
“universities have, and will continue to have, an indispensable value in society”.
That observation stands the test of time, but the nature of higher education institutions has changed, along with the expectations that students, staff and the public beyond the campus have for them.
This bill represents another step on the journey for our higher education institutions, which continue to be world leaders in teaching and research. It embraces the contributions of all in the campus community to ensure growth, prosperity and greater equality in future. I commend the bill to the Parliament, and I hope that members will support its passage at stage 3.
That the Parliament agrees that the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill be passed.
In all the different stages of the bill, it is important that we recognise that, whatever our views on the merits or demerits of the bill, it is good that we have been debating universities, their governance and their importance to Scotland.
Universities are central not just to our education system, but to our culture and our history, firstly, of course, as institutions in which students study, and they are highly successful in that regard. During the debates around the bill, many colleagues have pointed out that we have five universities in the top 200 in the world, which is more top universities per head than any other country—we should be proud of that.
Students seem to feel that universities in Scotland are doing the right things, too, since student satisfaction surveys show Scottish universities doing better than universities are doing in the rest of the United Kingdom. Our universities seem to be doing a good job in turning out students who are ready and prepared for future life, since students from Scottish universities have higher average starting salaries than those from other universities in the UK. A higher proportion of them also find their way into graduate-level jobs—not all of them do so, but our universities certainly do well in that regard.
Of course, our universities are also centres of excellence with regard to research. In the days of the referendum debates, it was a commonplace observation that we punched well above our weight in accessing UK-wide research resources—around 15 per cent of those resources in some years, which is far more than our population share. Further, we are one of the world’s leading countries when it comes to publishing peer-reviewed research papers.
Finally, universities are a critical and central part of our economy, firstly through their own investment, as they employ more than 38,000 people. We need only walk around the south side of Edinburgh to see just how much the University of Edinburgh is investing in construction around its estate. Secondly, they are important with regard to the work that they do with companies—and the work that they do to start up companies—to try to turn some of that great research work into good business, too. Indeed, Scottish universities account for some 28 per cent of spin-out companies in the UK—again, we punch well above our weight.
Of course, universities are also part of our history and our traditions, including our democratic tradition. It was in the 1960s that George Davie coined the phrase, “the democratic intellect”, but he was talking about the history and traditions of our universities, particularly the ancients, where the link between society and its intellectual leaders was important. Internally, our higher education institutions see themselves very much as communities involving academics, students and other staff.
Perhaps that democratic tradition is best symbolised by the rectors in our ancient universities. The cabinet secretary referred to that, but I am not sure that she picked the best example when she picked Thomas Carlyle, who was, of course, notoriously opposed to democracy in almost any form, and was a precursor of fascism. She might have been better to reach back to the first rector of the University of Edinburgh, who was William Gladstone, a well-known democrat. Nevertheless, the post of rector is an important democratic institution that is unique to Scotland’s universities.
We have supported the principles of this bill throughout its passage, because we believe that we need to revisit and modernise those democratic principles that we have found in our universities. We agreed with the Government that the voluntary code that had been created had not proven to be satisfactory. Although the higher education institutions argued that it was enough, examples such as the one that my colleague, Mark Griffin, referred to earlier—with the University and College Union trying to find out how principals’ pay had been derived and discovering not transparency but a refusal to co-operate and a redaction of the proceedings of remuneration committees—demonstrated that the voluntary code was not enough. We accepted the Government’s view that we had to go further, so we have supported the bill.
However, as I said earlier, it has not always been easy to support the bill, which has not been without its problems. When it first arrived with us, it was full of ministerial powers and discretion, although ministers said that they did not want those powers. That caused two problems: the potential loss of autonomy for the institutions, and the potential reclassification of the universities as public bodies, which would have hurt their finances. It was kind of ironic that, towards the end of consideration of amendments, the cabinet secretary steadfastly fought against Mr McArthur’s reimposition of a modest amount of ministerial discretion when it came to applications for exemptions, because, originally, the bill was little more than that.
In fairness, that has been sorted by, for example, the complete removal of several sections of the bill and the provision of more clarity on the format of the elections that will be required for chair. More consensus in reaching that point would have been nice. Throughout the passage of the bill, the cabinet secretary has depended less on the dialectic of debate and, instead, has dug herself into a series of ditches from which she has defended herself. It has not been an ideal legislative process, although, in our view, it has got us to a bill that encompasses the principles that we said at the beginning that we would support—the election of chairs of court in higher education institutions, and proper and guaranteed representation for students and for staff and their representatives. For that reason, we will support the bill this evening.
It will be no surprise that we do not support the bill. Not only do we continue to believe that there is absolutely no need for it, given the Scottish Government’s complete inability to provide evidence for its rationale, but we believe that several measures that it will put in place will actually diminish rather than enhance democratic principles and reduce the effectiveness of university governance in some institutions.
The cabinet secretary repeatedly says that the bill is about making the
“framework of governance ... more modern, accountable and inclusive”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 9 February 2016; c 16.]
but she has persistently failed to produce the necessary evidence about what is so wrong with the existing system.
In particular, we object to the straitjacket into which the Scottish Government is attempting to place university governance, thereby failing to acknowledge that diversity is one of the sector’s greatest strengths. The dismissive approach towards our small, specialist institutions—which, incidentally, happen to be some of our very best—is disturbing and reflects an inability on the part of the cabinet secretary to understand the factors that have delivered the academic excellence of those institutions. That is not a good thing, and it is little wonder that some of those institutions have been so angry.
On some issues, the cabinet secretary has not paid attention to the concerns that were raised by Ferdinand von Prondzynski and her predecessor, Mike Russell, both of whom were the architects of this unfortunate bill but who at least understood the need for special circumstances in order to preserve diversity in the institutions.
When the bill was first mooted, the Scottish Government made it clear that its only intention was to make some minor amendments to legislation to allow transparency when it came to the governance and management of universities, and their accountability for large sums of public money. Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, universities have approximately another 500 or so lines of accountability to non-Scottish Government organisations, none of which have had any issues with university governance. I would suggest that that lays bare the farce that the bill has become.
On the issue of the model of governance, as proposed by the bill, I have, in vain, asked the Scottish Government to give me an example of where that model can be found anywhere in the world. Silence prevails. Can the member help me? Is she aware of the existence of such a model of governance anywhere in the world?
I am afraid that I cannot help Annabel Goldie, because we have not had an answer to that question. It remains in the mists of time. I really do not understand where the Government is getting the information from. It is very disturbing. The other stakeholders do not seem to have a problem with governance, and I question again why the bill was considered necessary.
Let us be generous. If we are to accept that some changes were required, we would hope that they could be made with clarity and rational thinking. However, that is far from the case. Indeed, I feel very sorry for our universities, which will undoubtedly be faced with additional constitutional and administrative burdens, all because of the Scottish Government’s meddling. In some cases, the bill will diminish rather than enhance universities’ democratic accountability. That is very sad, not least because those universities are some of our finest institutions in Scotland. The last thing they want to be bothered about just now is having to worry about an unnecessary bill, when there are many other things that they want to get on with—leading the field on an international basis, in knowledge exchange and in research and development. I think we can all feel pretty sorry for them.
Overall, the approach that has been taken has displayed a degree of ignorance about what makes a university good. It has undermined the crucial trust that exists between a chair and the board and how that underpins policy making. I accept entirely what Annabel Goldie has been saying about that throughout the afternoon. The bill dilutes that trust, not least because there remains an overlapping electorate for chairs and rectors, with the result that it is hard to see where the responsibility really lies. That is never a good thing in any institution.
I am disappointed and, in some ways, very saddened by the approach that the Scottish Government has taken. I think that I can echo the feelings of every institution across the land when it comes to what has happened with regard to the bill. They have lobbied very reasonably and very often. It has all fallen on deaf ears. That is deeply regrettable, and I hope that the Scottish Government will consider the matter again and bring the legislation back to the Parliament in the next session.
For a relatively modest piece of proposed legislation, the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill has generated considerable comment. Members of the Education and Culture Committee have certainly heard a number of concerns, some of them justified, others not.
It is important to remember what lies at the heart of the bill: the ambition to democratise, modernise and bring greater transparency to our higher education institutions. It is about making Scotland’s world-class universities even better, by ensuring that they adhere to the highest standards of governance.
It is for that reason that the Education and Culture Committee’s stage 1 report recommended supporting the general principles of the bill. Indeed, the committee’s report was informed by a range of views from across the sector, and it was clear at stage 1 that, although the bill’s overall aims were worth while, more clarity was needed on a range of issues.
I am therefore pleased that the Scottish Government listened carefully to the concerns that were raised in the report and took steps to amend the bill accordingly. The cabinet secretary worked to address concerns about the possible unintended consequences of the bill, and the reclassification issue has been a good example of that. In response to the stage 1 report, the Scottish Government said that it had considered the risk to HEls of being reclassified as public bodies, and it subsequently amended the bill at stage 2 to minimise the risk of reclassification by the Office for National Statistics.
Another criticism that was levelled at the bill, which was reflected in the committee’s stage 1 report, was the apparent risk to the role of rectors at the ancient universities. Again, the Scottish Government responded positively to those concerns. I was pleased to introduce amendments at stage 2—along with the cabinet secretary—that I believe protect the statutory rights and responsibilities of rectors and ensure that their position is complementary to that of the senior lay member.
As the cabinet secretary has said, it was never the Government’s intention to diminish the role of rector; in fact, the work of the rectors at Scotland’s ancient universities is viewed very positively, and it is hoped that the extension of the elected chair model will benefit all of Scotland’s HEls.
The remuneration of chairs was another key issue that was raised at stage 1, with a call for further clarity on the need for introducing a statutory power to set the level of remuneration. The cabinet secretary sought to build a consensus among stakeholders and supported amendments to ensure reasonable remuneration for elected chairs, while removing the requirement to have ministerial powers in that area. That is a welcome step, and I note that the National Union of Students Scotland has highlighted it as an important aspect of widening access to the role of elected chair.
When considering the bill, it is worth remembering that its proposals are underpinned by the recommendations that were put forward by Professor von Prondzynski, following his 2012 review of higher education governance, which gathered evidence from a range of experts based in Scotland, the rest of the UK, Europe and beyond.
The bill is not about the Government taking control of universities; rather, it is about ensuring that every voice on campus is given the chance to be heard. It is about ensuring that students and staff—the lifeblood of our higher education institutions—are placed at the very heart of the decision-making process.
It is to be welcomed that the introduction of the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill has sparked debate on a range of issues facing HEIs, including equality, diversity and senior pay levels, an issue on which research published by the University and College Union has shone light in recent weeks. Those are undoubtedly important matters, and I would expect further examination of them during the next session of Parliament.
I believe that strengthening the democratic processes at our universities is a good thing. I look forward to the bill, if it is passed, ensuring that Scotland’s higher education sector continues to go from strength to strength.
As we have heard, the passage of the bill has not been a great advert for the Scottish Government’s competence and grasp of educational matters, but then again, what is? Matters that should have been thrashed out in co-operation with institutions’ staff and students have been pushed through, despite frequent opposition over reasonable concerns. In particular, there was significant apprehension about the impact of changes that could adversely affect institutions’ financial status. The institutions were not easily mollified by Scottish National Party reassurances, particularly given the Scottish Government’s track record of such reassurances turning into expensive mistakes. Doubts remain about some aspects of the bill, and dissatisfied parties abound, who will be looking for outcomes that give substance to such doubts.
Despite the messy management of its passage, at the heart of the bill lies a good intention, which is to create more democratic, diverse and accountable governing bodies that operate with greater openness and transparency. A primary objective in the process, which has been supported by Scottish Labour in amendments that it lodged, was to ensure that the operation of the governing bodies is opened up to staff and students and clearly works for their benefit. Where such representation existed, we wished to ensure that powers that were already in the hands of staff and students were not undermined.
The role of elected chairs should strengthen transparency and democracy in universities. The bill as it was initially drafted neglected the role of the rector and gave rise to strong criticism from the universities that have rectors elected to chair their university courts and to represent students or, in one case, staff and students.
Stage 2 amendments made provision for election of the senior lay member position and for retention of an elected rector in the four institutions where the rector has the right to chair the court. For many, that was second best to having a rector who is elected by all staff and students, who chairs the court and who has full leadership responsibilities. Although it was not the preferred option, it has been accepted as a compromise that will work. For the other institutions, the provisions are a major step forward in representation and have been welcomed even by those who have concerns about the final shape of that representation.
There is no doubt that there have been problems in our higher education institutions—what the University and College Union calls “a disconnect” between principals and senior management on the one hand, and staff and students on the other. The bill should go some way towards bridging that disconnect.
With some much-needed changes that took on board major concerns, the Scottish Government has somehow managed to muddle through and retain a bill that is worth supporting—or is, at the very least, passable. Of course, it was too much to hope that the Government would have improved it further by accepting all our amendments. Our amendments today included Mark Griffin’s amendment 43, which would have extended staff and student representation to relevant sub-committees of the governing body, and Cara Hilton’s amendment 48, which would have strengthened diversity and fair representation. The bill is weaker and poorer as a result of their rejection.
Our university sector is genuinely world class, but that 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 HE sector we have something to celebrate, value and respect. One of the sector’s great strengths, of course, is its differences: from the variety of institutions to the diversity of staff and student populations. It is absolutely right, therefore, that governance of our universities properly and transparently reflects that diversity. That means giving an effective voice to students and staff in the decisions that affect their institutions, which will ensure that governing bodies look, sound and act like those whom they represent.
How that is achieved is a legitimate question, and it is territory in which politicians should tread with care, but “care” has not been the Government’s watchword. From the outset, the Government has not been clear about what the problem is that ministers are trying to fix. Little evidence has been produced to justify the approach or to explain which international comparators we are trying to emulate. Ultimately, the Government has been unable to explain how the bill will make our university sector better.
Proposals have been unveiled—often with little or no consultation—only to be withdrawn or heavily amended once the full implications have been spelled out. That has left universities in collective despair, and that applies not only to principals, rectors and chairs of court but to others, too. Liam King, who is president of the students’ representative council at the University of Glasgow, captured the frustration that is felt by many when he said:
“I am perplexed ... as to how the Scottish Government has managed to botch this Bill so profoundly. From inadvertent clauses that risked turning Scotland’s universities into public bodies to utter ignorance of [the] relationship between the role of Rector and role of ‘chair’ of court. This Bill has been an unmitigated disaster”.
He went on to conclude that the process
“has been ramshackle and embarrassing, and ultimately threatens to undermine a proud Scottish tradition, democracy in Scotland’s universities, and good governance”.
Fortunately, the cabinet secretary backed down from her game of chicken with the Office for National Statistics over the threat of financially disastrous university reclassification. However, a mess has still been made, notably in the confusion that has been created by the overlapping roles and mandates of rectors and elected senior lay members. That has been the case despite solemn promises by the minister not to meddle, and despite the committee convener’s efforts to salvage the situation.
Even then, it may have been possible to limit the damage if only the Government had accepted my amendment on exemptions, which would have enabled the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow School of Art and other institutions that have a strong case to be exempted from provisions in the bill to have that case heard and, where appropriate, respected. That would have been in keeping with the diversity of the sector.
I do not really have time, I am afraid.
All the evidence shows that the best-performing universities worldwide are those that exercise the greatest level of responsible autonomy. Universities should be accountable and transparent, and they should reflect the diversity of the communities that they serve. How that is best achieved, however, should not be second-guessed by ministers using the blunt instrument of legislation.
Given the complete absence of any evidence for why legislation is needed, and the potential for the bill to hinder rather than help our world-class universities, I cannot support it at decision time this evening.
As I said in speaking to my amendments at stage 3, practically every single part of the bill has caused storm and fury. During stage 1, we discussed potential ONS reclassification and concerns about whether the bill provided for too much ministerial control. The cabinet secretary listened to the debate and came back at stage 2 with amendments to remove those elements from the bill. However, the storm and fury continued in relation to other issues in the sector.
I was led to believe in my interactions with the sector itself that it wanted the issues of ministerial control and potential ONS reclassification dealt with at stage 2. When those issues were addressed, that should have enabled us to see a way forward and to work together to progress the bill. However, we ended up in a situation in which other issues continued to arise.
I am first and foremost a back-bench MSP representing my constituency. I went to see Craig Mahoney, the principal of the University of the West of Scotland in my constituency. For the first half-hour of our discussion, we effectively went through the academic argument that has been going on between Universities Scotland and the Government for the past six months. Eventually, however, we talked about how UWS could move forward as a modern institution, how the bill could make a difference and how the university could manage the new structure.
At that point, I believed—I am not putting words into the principal’s mouth—that we had reached a better place than we had been before. What we need to do in considering the bill today is sit back and say, “Right. How will this work practically in the real world rather than here in the chamber?”
During the Education and Culture Committee’s evidence sessions, many positive things were said about our world-renowned university sector. The very spirit of the bill was to ensure democratisation, that the full campus should be represented, and that everyone would work together to make that better. As I said at stage 1, Mary Senior of UCU said:
“No one is questioning that Scottish universities are good—they are good. What we are saying is that they could be so much better if staff, students and trade unions were fully involved in how they operate.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 6 October 2015; c 11.]
That is what the bill is all about; it is its heart and soul. We are giving opportunity to the full community. Little as I like to say it, not every idea that I have is the best in the world. However, when we work as a group, we have others with us who have better ideas. That is the ideology that we are talking about just now. We are modernising institutions and bringing them into the 21st century, which is the most important part of the bill.
We have to be mindful that those organisations are getting £3 billion: £1 billion is from the Scottish Government, £1 billion is from the United Kingdom Government, and research and commercial activities make up the other £1 billion. Two thirds of the universities’ budget comes from the public purse and we have to find a way of accounting for that.
Unfortunately, I have only about 10 seconds left.
I believe in the bill; it is a way forward for our higher education institutions. I want to work with them to see how we can move on from here.
I am pleased to speak in this evening’s stage 3 debate on the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill.
The bill is by no means perfect, and it would have been enhanced greatly if many of the amendments that we discussed this afternoon had been passed. However, the bill provides a real opportunity to improve and strengthen the democracy, transparency and accountability of Scotland’s vital university sector.
We know the contribution that our universities make to the academic, economic, social and cultural life of our nation, and the support that they provide to keeping tens of thousands of people in work across Scotland. However, there is no doubt that they could benefit from being more open and accountable. I therefore welcome the opportunities that the bill provides to address current shortfalls in university governance and to improve accountability and transparency in decision-making structures.
I confess that I am a wee bit confused by that intervention so I will pass.
The bill will give staff, students and trade unions a real voice and a real say in the future of the universities in which they learn, teach and work. It is only right that public institutions that receive millions of pounds from the taxpayer every year are run in a way that is open, democratic and transparent. As I said during the stage 1 debate, when we look at some of the issues that have hit the headlines recently, such as job losses and senior management pay, it is easy to see why that is necessary.
The decisions that governing boards make would undoubtedly be better if they better reflected the diversity of the student and staff populations but, right now, 65 per cent of governing board members are men, while women and other groups continue to be seriously underrepresented.
Research published today by the University and College Union—“Holding down women’s pay”—shows that four Scottish universities are paying their female employees at significantly lower rates than they pay men. At the University of the Highlands and Islands, female lecturers are paid £18,000 a year less than their male colleagues. At the University of St Andrews in Fife, women lecturers are paid £8,699 a year less than their male counterparts. It is outrageous that, almost 50 years after the Equal Pay Act 1970, such staggering pay inequality still exists in Scotland’s universities. Once more, that highlights why improving transparency and accountability in the sector is so important.
In that respect, I am disappointed that the cabinet secretary opposed my amendment to introduce quotas on university boards. It is unacceptable that, while women make up more than half the student and staff population, only a third of governing board members are women. Although we have seen progress, the fact remains that there is much more to do to achieve gender parity in our universities.
This is a real missed opportunity, and the Government’s approach on it seems out of step with the commitments of the cabinet secretary and the First Minister to support the 50:50 campaign. Having more women on the governing boards of universities would not in itself address the pay gap that was set out in the report that I mentioned, but I am confident that it would lead to more urgency in addressing the situation.
I am disappointed, too, that the Scottish Government did not accept Alison Johnstone’s and Mark Griffin’s amendments on regulating pay for senior managers. Greater scrutiny alone is not enough to tackle the unreasonable pay increases that we have seen at the top of the scale. It cannot be right that university principals on three-figure salaries are taking inflation-busting pay increases while their staff are told to accept less than inflation, year in, year out, and are forced to take strike action just to get a basic 2 per cent increase.
The Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill is not perfect and could have been improved in many ways. However, for all its flaws, it provides a greater chance to improve university governance for the better. I hope that, if the bill is passed, it will make a real difference to university students and staff. I hope, too, that we can revisit the debate in the next session of Parliament so that we can take real steps to tackle the issues of diversity in Scotland’s universities and ensure that they are governed better in future.
“the cheerful man will do more in the same time, will do it better, will preserve it longer, than the sad or sullen.”
I liked that one. I also liked the quote where he said:
“All great peoples are conservative.”
So there we are.
The cabinet secretary is very knowledgeable about the time that Thomas Carlyle was writing, so she will know that we can assume that what he said applied to men and women. There are enough of us today to take on his comments.
This is my last stage 3 debate. After this will come my last members’ business speech, in Cara Hilton’s members’ business debate, and tomorrow I will make my last speech in the Parliament. I wish that I could be more consensual in this final stage 3 debate.
I would like to, but I just cannot.
As we normally do on these occasions, I thank the clerks of the Education and Culture Committee and, in particular, I thank the convener, Stewart Maxwell. It was not easy to gain consensus across the committee on the bill. It was fairly complex and difficult to understand; there was very little information, and clarity was way out there on the horizon somewhere. Stewart Maxwell did as well as any convener could in bringing it together at stage 1.
Since 1999, the Parliament has passed significant legislation on issues such as mental health and smoking in public places. Across the political divide, we have often disagreed on the policy approach to addressing problems through legislation, but this is the first time since 1999 that I have found legislation looking for a problem. The cabinet secretary said earlier that she was
“surprised at the level of opposition to the bill from some”.
I have to correct her and say that it was not just some universities; it was every single higher education institution in the whole of Scotland. It is also incredible that the Government’s justification for the bill is that it consulted one man—Professor von Prondzynski. He certainly has a lot to answer for.
As others have said, the code of governance is to be reviewed this year. There is no doubt that progress has been made. Universities Scotland has said that the code has already delivered nearly 400 positive changes, with 72 per cent of universities having two or more student governors and 94 per cent having two or more staff governors. In August this year, we will have 50:50 gender balance for chair positions in Scottish universities, when another woman takes up a place. The 50:50 is happening.
I hope that in the future, when politics students look at this legislation, they do not use the bill as a shining example of what we do. The fact is that, on the face of the bill at stage 2, there was a duty on the universities to advertise on the internet. Thankfully, it has been removed today, but I am quite embarrassed that someone came up with the idea of telling our world-class universities that they have to advertise on the internet. Also on the face of the bill, in primary legislation—it is all there in nice, bright purple—the universities are told to tell people where to get their application forms. It is a little bit embarrassing.
Presiding Officer, I see that you are indicating that I should wind up—I have probably done enough winding up. In concluding, I thank my colleague Liz Smith, who has worked extensively across the sector, consulting and putting forward points of concern for higher education in Scotland.
As Iain Gray set out at the beginning of the debate, Labour supports the general principles of the bill. The bill has the laudable aims of ensuring that the structure of governance of our universities continues to develop and adapt to maintain the first-class university provision in which we should all take pride.
From the start of the process, we have offered our support in particular for the inclusion of trade union and student representatives on governing bodies as a democratisation of higher education institutions’ governing bodies. We believe that that is central to ensuring that we meet our aims of greater transparency and accountability in the sector.
All parties and all members who have spoken in the chamber today have recognised the importance of the higher education sector to Scotland’s economy and our international standing. We should be listening to the sector’s views and responding to its concerns. The value that we place on our higher education system is part of our cultural DNA. We extol the virtues of our historic and new universities, and it is with great pride that we talk about our contribution to the world—not just in educating our own young people, but in the world-leading research and dynamic entrepreneurship that are recognised across the globe. It is in that context that we must view the bill.
That context has seen our universities continue to succeed in an increasingly competitive international climate, and we must be cautious in attempting to improve the way in which our institutions operate. We should avoid diminishing or restricting the freedom that has contributed to their success.
Scottish higher education has a long history of having staff and students at the heart of its mechanisms of governance. Staff and students are full members of the university’s governing body, the court, in every institution. According to Universities Scotland, 94 per cent of institutions have two or more staff members on their courts and 72 per cent have two or more student members of court. We all recognise that the approach that we must take should seek to build on that record rather than suggest that there is a problem with university governance that requires a top-down overhaul.
What the Government presented, throughout the various stages of the bill, has caused the process to be unnecessarily difficult. The cabinet secretary said that she was surprised at the level of opposition, and I am surprised at how difficult it was for us to support the bill as it was drafted, given our support for its general principles. I think that bad drafting, ministerial overreach and, at times, genuine incompetence have put unhelpful pressure on the coalition of support that has existed for the bill.
I am pleased that the cabinet secretary has recognised many of the drafting mistakes and that the committee was able to help to rectify them. The issue of ONS reclassification, the clash with the role of the rector and the incoherence of the Government’s role in managing our universities have all been overcome. Nevertheless, I am disappointed that we have not chosen to further strengthen and improve the bill at stage 3.
We supported the representation of staff and students on the remuneration committee. In light of the Government’s failure to get to grips with pay and conditions packages in our colleges, it would seem that it is content to allow other public bodies to set their own terms. We felt that having those at the top and bottom ends of the pay scale deciding on pay increases for senior management could have been a crucial check on excessive pay, and we are disappointed that the Government has chosen to reject that approach.
The cabinet secretary is to be commended for accepting that mistakes have been made and that there have been issues with the drafting, and for listening to the committee, the sector and voices in the Parliament, but the repercussions of the Government getting it wrong on higher education governance are so serious that we will be watching carefully. The implementation of good ideas has never been the Government’s strong point—curriculum for excellence is a case in point—which is why we will be scrutinising every detail as the policy moves forward in practice.
Despite a bad start and the rocky road that the bill has been on to get this far, we must ensure that our world-class universities are supported with the freedom and the framework that will allow them to continue to provide the first-class education and groundbreaking research for which they are revered. That is why we will support the bill.
I thank members for today’s stage 3 debate and record my thanks to the Education and Culture Committee. Unlike Mary Scanlon, I will not embarrass its convener, Stewart Maxwell. I also pay tribute to all our stakeholders, including the NUS, the UCU and Universities Scotland.
Mark Griffin and Iain Gray said that the bill has not been without its problems; there have, of course, been a few twists and turns and a few bumps on the road on the journey that we have taken, but that means that the final destination is to be appreciated all the more. I thank Iain Gray for his opening remarks. I say to Mark Griffin that had he lodged at stage 2 some of the amendments that he lodged at stage 3, they could have been developed, so he might want to reflect on that.
I was not surprised to hear that Liz Smith, Baroness Goldie and Mary Scanlon will oppose the bill to the bitter end—it is their democratic right to do so. They have been very active participants in the debate on the bill and have pursued their views with tenacity. The reality is that I could have turned water into wine and would still have failed to persuade some Conservative members of the merits of the bill, but I had hoped for some acknowledgement of how far we have travelled through inclusion in the bill of measures that address the widest possible range of views from people who have interests.
In its briefing, NUS Scotland said that although it remains unconvinced of the need for any attempt to shortlist candidates, it recognises that the proposed model seeks to find a compromise among stakeholders, and it has been very supportive of the Scottish Government’s attempts to find a compromise. I flag that up to John Pentland in particular, in order to make the point that we have tried very hard to achieve a level of consensus, particularly in advance of the final stages of the bill. From the word go, extensive efforts were made to communicate and to engage with everyone who has an interest.
There have been a lot of very valuable and informed contributions throughout the course of this afternoon. Both Cara Hilton and Alison Johnstone made very powerful contributions acknowledging that universities have to be at the forefront of tackling inequality both within and outwith those institutions. However, I have to say to Cara Hilton in particular that if a matter is outwith the legal competence of the Scottish Parliament, there is indeed a limit to those often-debated ministerial powers.
I want to emphasise how much support the bill actually has. We have to remember that there is a wider university community beyond principals and chairs of court, important though their opinions are. Many HEI staff and students and other stakeholders, including MSPs, signalled their appetite for change and for the modernisation of governance structures. I am grateful to them all for their forbearance and for their solidarity in support for the bill throughout its passage. We have, in the closing debate, touched on the statutory and historical role of rector and how it has been protected. I want to pay tribute to Catherine Stihler. Although we have not always agreed on every detail, she has made a very worthy contribution to the debate and has sought to make her contributions constructively and meaningfully.
It is important to look to the future, although Liam McArthur seemed to be determined in his speech to revisit past debates. However, I am going to resist the temptation to point out some of his efforts to introduce “blunt” legislation, some of which I consider to have been rather illiberal, at times. It is important that we now set aside our differences of opinion and collaborate to make the bill’s provisions work in the long-term interests of our institutions and the HE sector. Universities and other HE institutions play a vital role in the well-being of our society and economy, and I have made it clear throughout the bill’s progress that their autonomy is something that we all value and want to maintain.
This Government continues to make a substantial public investment in higher education because our institutions are high-quality organisations that contribute hugely to our ambitions to be a fairer Scotland with a more prosperous economy. However, we know that time stands still for no one. Our institutions are good, but now is the time to refine governance arrangements to maintain the excellence for which they are renowned. Any institution that exists as part of a nation’s fabric must move with the times and ensure that it remains capable of contributing to how the nation wishes to develop its culture and values. In 21st century Scotland, there is an appetite for greater participation in the democratic processes that affect our lives and futures, and for people who have a stake in the future of their communities to have a say. The bill ensures that that will happen in relation to the HE sector.
I encourage our higher education institutions to focus on the positives that the bill will introduce. Fundamentally, the bill is about modernisation—focused, discrete and targeted modernisation that will help to create stronger unity of purpose and a sense of community on campuses. The bill seeks to strengthen the wellbeing of our universities by ensuring that more responsibility for governance, success and excellence is taken by more of those who have a direct interest in those outcomes. In short, the bill seeks to ensure that all voices on campus are heard.
For anyone who is still reluctant to embrace the changes that the bill introduces, I will finish with a quotation from Socrates that I hope everyone will heed:
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”