New government consultation proposes controversial changes to rectorial elections

 

The future basis of rectorial elections at Scotland’s ‘ancient’ universities may be under threat as a result of proposals contained within a new Scottish Government consultation.

The Scottish Government Consultation Paper on a Higher Education Governance Bill was launched in November last year by then Education Secretary Michael Russell to improve levels of democratic accountability in Scotland’s universities.

It required consultation from industry figures on six key areas of higher education governance, including the role of university principals and membership of university governing bodies.

However, the paper has aroused controversy over its ideas for the future of university rectors and their election at some of Scotland’s largest universities.

The consultation proposes changing the current system of open nomination and elections for rectors across the entire student body to a system where university officials draw up a shortlist of candidates.

Following the shortlist process, an election would take place involving ‘appropriate persons’ from the university, as well as a selection of staff and students representing the university’s ‘external stakeholders.’

In its summary, the report claims that the key benefits of the change would be to increase levels of transparency and consistency in the election criteria for rectorial elections across Scotland.

The report also responds to recent criticism over ‘absentee rectors’ at Scottish universities, such as the election of Edward Snowden at Glasgow University, by claiming that the shortlist process will attract candidates with the requisite skills and experience for the post.

The Student spoke to one of the candidates for Edinburgh’s upcoming rectorial election, Steve Morrison, for his reaction to the proposals.

Morrison said: “I hope that the Scottish Government shifts from its current position due to the opposition from students and staff to the insertion of a vetting committee between electors and rectors. This legislation may serve to dilute the free election of rectors by students in a free and fair manner and voters do not want the creation of a ‘Hong Kong’ style of election where candidates are proposed and elected beyond the view of most voters.”

He added: “There are many elements of this programme of legislation that I am supportive of, but it has fallen into a trap of restricting students and staff from exercising their sovereign right to elect their chosen rectorial candidate.”

The consultation formally closed yesterday evening (Friday 30th Jan) and The Student has gathered the reaction of several other student and staff representatives to the proposals.

Gordon Maloney, president of NUS Scotland, which represents the views of Scottish students, said: “At the moment, Scottish universities are too often run by the same types of people, without real accountability to students and staff. The extortionate pay packages awarded to principals and the embarrassingly low numbers of women on governing boards show what a lack of democracy can do to our institutions.

“We need to see universities become grounded in the community they serve, meaning that students and staff have a far greater say over how they’re run. Universities aren’t businesses and should care about more than just the financial bottom line. That’s why we want to see these changes, including elected Chairs, so that the people running our institutions are chosen democratically.”

One of the key organisations involved in the consultation is the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), which represents over 120,000 academics, lecturers and university professionals.

Its Scotland Official Mary Senior said: “UCU Scotland welcome legislation democratising governance arrangements in our universities and believe reform is not before time.  It is important though that democratically elected chairs of court are elected by all students and staff.

“Best practice needs to be rolled out to all institutions and what can’t be allowed to happen is legislation meaning some institutions become less democratic than they currently are.”

A University of Edinburgh spokesman said: “The University has been part of the consultation process and it is happy to work with the Scottish Government on any future proposals.  We do not interpret the proposals as implying a change to our existing arrangements for the election of the Rector.”

EUSA Vice-President (Academic Affairs), Dash Sekhar, criticised the proposed changes: “The University’s consultation response recommending a vetted shortlist is something that we completely oppose, as we fill this significantly infringes upon the democratic process.

“Our consultation response has been completed by the sabbaticals and staff here at EUSA with help from NUS Scotland, and student unions are united in their opposition to this proposition.”

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