Universities (Autonomy)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 11th November 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

5. To ask the Scottish Government what measures are in place to protect the autonomy of Scotland’s universities. (S6O-00357)

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

The autonomy of Scotland’s universities is protected through their legal status as independent charitable bodies. The Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016 expanded the statutory definition of academic freedom and required our universities to aim to uphold the academic freedom of persons engaged in teaching or the provision of learning or research at the university.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I am sure that the minister agrees that university autonomy—which, of course, includes the academic freedom that he referred to—has been part of the success of the university system for hundreds of years precisely because it protects institutional diversity and specialisation and that the system reflects the likes of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Scotland’s Rural College and Glasgow School of Art. Does the minister accept that recent developments with regard to free speech in the university system at the United Kingdom and Scottish levels threaten to undermine the concepts of autonomy and academic freedom? Will he explain to Parliament what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that university autonomy is never diminished?

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I understand why that question has been asked, but, in my experience, not a single institution or academic has contacted me to express concerns about what the system in Scotland is operating to. Our responsibility, of course, is to ensure that we enshrine and protect the autonomy of institutions and, indeed, academics. That autonomy is enshrined in the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016, and we expect institutions to adhere to that. The act sets out that academic freedom includes the

“freedom within the law to ... hold and express opinions ... question and test established ideas or received wisdom ... develop and advance new ideas or innovative proposals ... present controversial or unpopular points of view.”

Our universities should be able to do that, and I see nothing that encumbers them in their being able to do that.