Politicians and colleges – the question of governance

Colleges in Scotland are having a pretty tough time. Government has imposed huge cuts in their teaching and capital budgets, and is pressing them hard to achieve significant savings through mergers and other economy measures. Not surprisingly, relationships between government and colleges have been rather frosty recently. But they have taken a new turn for the worse in the last fortnight, with the chair of one Glasgow college claiming that the Education Secretary effectively forced him to resign.

The basic facts of the dispute are accepted by both sides. Kirk Ramsay, chair of the Stow College board, attended a meeting for senior staff and board members, and recorded a speech by Mike Russell, the minister responsible for education. Ramsay then circulated the recording to other colleagues in Glasgow, and was called in to see the minister, who took the view that no “secret recording” should have been made, let along circulated. Ramsay meanwhile claims that the meeting was hardly secret, and that he wanted an accurate record of the speech.

What happened when Russell met Ramsay is not entirely clear; but the minister subsequently wrote to all colleges suggesting that Ramsay’s behaviour was incompatible with senior office, an allegation repeated publicly throughout last week. Anyone interested in the details can read the accounts in the Glasgow-based Herald. And the question of whether politicians’ speeches (or my lectures) should be taped is also not what concerns me right now. I’m more interested in the light that this episode sheds on the governance of Scotland’s system of further and higher education.

In principle, Scotland’s colleges are independent bodies. They are governed through boards whose members are appointed by the existing board; at least half must come from outside the college. But each college is largely funded by the Scottish Funding Council, an ‘arm’s length’ body whose governing body is also appointed by the Scottish Government, which also supplies its budget and sets its broad strategy goals. The row over Kirk Ramsay’s behaviour must lead many people to ask whether the Scottish Government is now exercising a stronger control over the sector than has previously been the case.

I put the question partly because there is a back story to the row. The Scottish Government has asked the SFC to take forward a process of college mergers, and Stow College has refused to play ball. Moreover, some will spot party politics at work. The Nationalist Party controls the government; but it also controls most of the committees by which the Scottish Parliament is supposed to hold ministers to account. Unsurprisingly, the convener of the education committee has refused to debate the issue, even – entirely absurdly, given the size of the fatal instrument – claiming that Ramsay used a “spy pen” to record the minister’s speech.

This aspect of the story should concern anyone interested in the autonomy of Scotland’s universities and colleges. Beyond that, we might also wonder how the row will affect wider views of the sector. Will colleges find vigorous and independent-minded individuals to join their boards, or will they instead settle for sockpuppets who voice a script provided by the government of the day? And how will the row affect the morale and behaviour of staff and managers in the colleges? Will they be able to take decisions on the best interests of learners and their college, or will they feel obliged to keep misgivings to themselves?

To avoid stupid decisions and generate innovation, whether in colleges or universities, we need independent voices who can put difficult questions at an early stage in any debate and are confident in expressing awkward ideas and new proposals. People, in other words, who are a bit like Mike Russell when he isn’t being a minister. Any organisation that is run by compliant governors, frightened managers and cowed staff are unlikely to be particularly effective.

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