Modernising Scottish higher education or a dog’s breakfast?

This afternoon, the Scottish Parliament will debate the Post-16 Education Bill. This is a controversial measure, labelled by its opponents as a ‘dog’s breakfast’, and by its supporters as the salvation of a broken system. It has enraged vice chancellors, governing bodies and college principals, and it has been savaged in the press. Everyone expects it to pass, though, because the government has a majority and because the Cabinet Secretary for Education is fiercely committed to its success.

The Bill covers three main issues, each of which has in itself defeated earlier generations of politicians. First, it sets out proposals for merging Scotland’s colleges into 13 college regions. This process is already under way, with strong encouragement from the Scottish Funding Council.

Here, the government’s main problem – and the stumbling block that defeated past attempts to ‘rationalise’ college structures – is that Scotland’s regions are very diverse. It is relatively easy to merge the larger colleges in the urban areas, particularly in the central belt around Glasgow and Edinburgh. It is extremely difficult to merge the smaller colleges that serve the more rural and isolated communities of the north and the borders – and local politicians will fight tooth and nail to preserve the identity and autonomy of their community’s local college.

Second, the Bill includes statutory powers to secure wider access in higher education. Again, the Scottish Funding Council has effectively started this process moving through what are called ‘single outcome agreements’ which lay out the terms under which SFC agrees to fund each institution.

Again, previous administrations have attempted to secure wider access to Scotland’s universities, with limited success. Indeed, the intake in Scottish universities is rather more selective than in other UK nations and regions, as regular readers of this blog will know. So it is understandable that a confident minister, with a parliamentary majority, has decided that enough is enough. What is not clear is how the government intends to use the new powers, nor how it will enforce them. Nor is it clear how it will affect the large higher education programmes that take place inside colleges rather than universities.

Third, the Bill outlines new powers for the government to regulate university governance and management. The key proposal here is that the government will ensure that there is compliance with good practice in governance or management, which may include intervening in the appointment of governing boards.

Once more, proposals for the reform of university governance in Scotland have been around for some time. Current structures are inherited from the past, ranging from reserved places on governing bodies for representatives of the Kirk to the often tumultuous elections for a student rector, as well as the more sober lay domination of the boards of former central institutions.

The higher education sector has lobbied ferociously against this part of the Bill, which it sees as the thin end of the state intervention wedge. The problem is that the sector has patently failed to clean up its act. Most vice chancellors – and most chairs of governors – have trundled along, appointing ‘more of the same’ to their governing bodies and senior academic teams, as though the suffragettes and civil rights movements had never happened.

Much as I understand why this section is included, I’d love to see it amended. The Bill does not say what the ‘good practice’ in governance and management is that the government will secure, nor how it relates to the code of good governance that the university chairs have drafted at the government’s request. And the government has departed from the recommendations of the Prondzynski review of university governance in failing to enshrine academic freedom in law.

Much of the bill is, it seems to me, deeply democratic and egalitarian in intent. The three main proposals are all easy to justify in general terms. The problems lie, as so often, partly in the detail, which here is often poorly defined or simply ignored; and partly in the assumption that all future governments will use these new powers wisely, and not abuse them. And by passing up the opportunity to enshrine academic freedom in law, the Scottish Government has missed a trick. Nevertheless, I expect the Parliament to pass the Bill by a clear majority, with major long term consequences for Scottish further and higher education.