Scottish Universities Challenged

Improving governance or constraining autonomy?

An earlier post covered the outcomes of a review of governance in Scottish universities and reported a number of concerns about what looked like far-reaching and extremely interventionist proposals.

Following this review the Scottish government has now indicated its response and, according to the Scotsman, it looks set to adopt many of the recommendations:

THE Scottish Government has unveiled a radical shake-up of the country’s universities and colleges.

• Education secretary Mike Russell unveils plans for a shakeup of pay and quotas

• Labour’s education spokesman Hugh Henry likened the plans to a ‘power grab’

• Scotland’s colleges currently undergoing mergers following earlier plans to save money and prevent duplication of courses

Education secretary Mike Russell said he had accepted “virtually all” the recommendations of a review of university governance, which called for elected chairs, quotas for female board members and curbs on the pay of high-earning principals.

Universities Scotland has sought to respond in a measured fashion to this development. The Scotsman carries the piece by Alastair Sim:

The von Prondynski review set out a range of affirmations and challenges for the sector. Some of these are matters of public policy or of legislation, and it’s important that universities and government keep talking to find ways forward which will genuinely improve the effective and responsive governance of Scottish universities. We welcome the recognition in the minister’s statement that this will be an evolutionary process which may include adaptation of the original proposals. Let’s use the time between now and proposed legislation to make sure we are getting things right.

Let’s hope they do keep talking. The review recommendations do, on the face of it, seem to represent significant challenges to institutional autonomy in Scotland and offer not insubstantial increases in the bureaucratic burden on universities. Serious consideration needs to be given to whether these proposals will really improve governance and institutional success or, as many fear, will in fact limit the ability of Scottish universities to deliver their missions.


Research money could be better spent on teaching students

Research consumes much time and money that could be better spent on teaching students

Good article in the Scotsman by Professor John Haldane of St Andrews offering a view on the balance of funding between teaching and research. The article is a version of Professor Haldane’s excellent presentation at the Lord Dearing memorial conference held at the University of Nottingham in February 2010:

ONCE again there is talk of a funding crisis facing higher education and some are talking of cuts as swingeing as those enacted during the first Thatcher administration…During the last two decades, university managers, academics and others have become accustomed to increases in the level of income in support of teaching and research, and although the sources of income have been diversified, there remains a great demand upon the public purse to deliver increasing resources to universities. There are questions of justice regarding this – particularly in Scotland, given that students make no direct financial contribution – for many who pay for the provision of university education do not participate in it, and much of what is paid for may not be valued by the wider society, nor deserve to be.

Haldane refers to two mid-19th Century works: Newman’s Idea of a University and John Stuart Mill’s Rectorial Address to the students at St Andrews University, delivered and published in 1867 (it lasted for three hours apparently).

From the perspective of the present, the most striking features of these two accounts of the nature and value of university education is what they exclude. Newman thought that it was not the business of universities to engage in research. He writes that “a university is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement of it. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a university should have students.” Newman was not against research, but thought it should be conducted in special institutes. Mill likewise thought that the fact that certain activities are important for individuals and society does not mean they should be part of the university curriculum.

In short, the argument is this:

the growing mass of researchers may have become a drag on and even an obstacle to the pursuit of the primary purpose of universities – namely, education. It impedes the effort to put students first and it consumes vast sums of private and public funding.

So, given the new constraints on funding higher education faces and will continue to experience, the proposition is that we consider rebalancing limited funds to invest more heavily in teaching and learning and less in research. Controversial stuff but, as he shows, entirely in keeping with the ideas of Newman and Mill.