Scotland politics

Controversial higher education bill passed by MSPs

Holyrood chamber

A bill aimed at strengthening the management of higher education in Scotland has been passed at Holyrood.

The Higher Education Governance Bill had proved controversial, with the government agreeing to cut some measures from the legislation.

Labour backed the general principles of the bill, while the Lib Dems and Conservatives hit out at it.

The bill modernises academic boards with elected chairs and an enhanced definition of academic freedom.

It was passed by 92 votes to 17.

'Important day'

Education Secretary Angela Constance said: "This is an important day for the future of Scotland's world class universities and their students.

"The passing of the Higher Education Governance Bill will ensure greater openness and transparency in the governance of these important and influential institutions.

Image caption Angela Constance said the bill would ensure greater openness and transparency

"Every voice on campus will be heard as part of elections for chairs, or senior lay members, with staff, students and union representatives involved in the whole recruitment and election process. The historic role of rectors in those universities that have them will also continue.

"We have listened closely to stakeholders and interested parties over the course of the bill's passage and made a number of amendments, both to clarify the bill, and to make sure it has maximum impact in improving governance practice."

'Bad drafting'

She added: "Our higher education institutions are, and will remain, a great source of pride to Scotland. Our research work is known the world over and the student experience is of the highest quality.

"An enhanced voice on campus for those who may not have been able to contribute before can only improve the sector's standing."

Mary Senior, University and College Union (UCU) Scotland official, said: "We welcome the passing of this important bill. Reforming university governance and making our universities more democratic, transparent and accountable is something that UCU has campaigned for over many years.

"These changes will reconnect the way universities are run with those most affected by decisions - the staff and students - and allow our universities to remain the world leading institutions they are."

Emily Beever, NUS Scotland women's officer, said: "The bill provides for far greater levels of staff and student involvement in key decision making and ensures that our universities - charitable bodies, rightly in receipt of over a billion pounds of public funding every year - are more representative and inclusive of the communities they serve."

During the debate at Holyrood Labour MSP Mark Griffin said the Scottish government's proposals had caused an unnecessarily difficult process, pointing out that there had been "bad drafting, ministerial overreach and incompetence" in its progress.

But he commended the minister for listening and making changes and said his party would be scrutinising every detail as the policy moved into practice.

Scottish Conservative MSP Mary Scanlon said this was the first time she had "found legislation looking for a problem".

She claimed that every higher education institution in the whole of Scotland criticised the bill.

Rector role

Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur said that in the higher education sector, Scotland had something to value and respect.

He said the bill should be about ensuring that all staff and student voices were heard and said it was unclear what ministers were trying to fix and how the bill would make things better.

Although universities get a large chunk of their income from the Scottish government, unlike schools and colleges they are not part of the public sector or directly accountable to politicians.

The proposal which caused the most controversy was for directly elected chairs for university courts - students and staff would be able to take part in the vote.

But this was seen by some as a threat to the role of the rector at the ancient universities.

The role of the rector is sometimes seen as purely symbolic and ceremonial. However, supporters argue the best rectors can be powerful ambassadors for their universities and champions of the students' interests.

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