Let’s make Universities more democratic

(11) SNP bill


By Rachel Munford

The Student Newspaper (the Edinburgh University newspaper for clarification) recently reported that many Scottish universities were in outrage over the latest attempt to regulate the inner workings of universities.

The Higher Education Governance Bill went into its consultation phase and it’s caused a stir for most universities.

The proposals include changing the definition of ‘Academic Freedom’, election of chair members of governing bodies, and creating a more representative, and elected, membership of governing bodies. Universities against the bill have criticised it for undermining the independence of universities from government involvement as well as the democratic nature of governing bodies.

Yet surely, Universities would welcome the ability to create transparency but seemingly not. Not everyone is against the bill. The bill would allow a wider membership to governing bodies which make decisions and discuss issues within the university. This proposal would mean that a governing body would provide at least 2 student representatives nominated by student unions and at least 2 members who represent – and are elected by – staff.

Another proposal clarifies the role of academic boards in university matters. Academic boards would, under the bill, would have elected bodies with the exception of the Principal and Heads of School. No matter the composition of the academic board, the elected members should be the majority and members be elected by the area of the university they represent.

This emphasis on elected bodies would mean, under the bill, heads of university bodies would be held more accountable than they currently are. Heads of universities are often left to make decisions without the input of the students who their decisions affect; Students are at the mercy of a rarely visible body of executives. Principals and university executives can appear to make decisions which only benefit the few and leave students feeling unheard in the organisation of their higher education.

Warwick University Students issued a vote of no confidence in their Vice-Chancellor, Nigel Thrift, and have yet to see any development. According to the Boar, reasons for this motion included disputes over staff pay, Thrift’s pay as well as his pay-rise, and the possible redundancies within the Medical School and the Life Sciences. These were among the many reasons for the vote and these are not unique – many universities within the UK do experience controversies with their Principals and Executive staff members.

It’s well known that at Strathclyde that the Principal earns £334,000 and spent £33, 508 on flights (in expenses) in 2013/14.

Having an academic board with a majority of elected members would allow concerns to be confronted directly and democratically. Heads of Schools and the Principal would have to attend meetings. Budget concerns could be addressed openly. Students would no longer feel unheard because currently the class-rep meetings and monthly forums aren’t direct enough.

Gordon Maloney, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland, told the Student Newspaper: “At the moment, Scottish universities are too often run by the same types of people, without real accountability to students and staff… the huge disconnect between the people who chair governing bodies and the staff and students they should be serving show what a lack of democracy can do to our institutions. The proposed legislation is a great opportunity to shake things up and make sure that the leaders of our education institutions are serving the interests of the whole community. The only way to ensure this happens is by having governing bodies that enjoy the confidence of staff and students through open and democratic elections, not through a narrow and self-selecting process.”

The NUS isn’t scared of these proposals, so why are universities? While they believe it would be an attack on the independence of universities, many students and student representative bodies view it as a chance for universities to be more open. Isn’t that a good thing for everyone?

The bill does propose some revolutionary changes to University systems yet it does propose some pointless changes such as changing the name of the principal to ‘Chief Executive’ and changing the definition of academic freedom. Two things which, in the grand scheme of education, don’t matter.

Unfortunately the Higher Education Governance Bill is still, simply, a bill so it may be a while before we finally see more transparency within the operation of Universities.

I, for one, welcome the move but will it ever happen? Well that’s a different question.