Saturday, 18 April 2015


On the 20-22 April the STUC Congress will be meeting in Ayr. The theme of this year's Congress is Decent Work and Dignified Lives. In the run up to Congress this blog will host a series of articles prepared by STUC affiliated unions. These articles reflect the positions and priorities of our affiliates and are designed to give a flavour of the disparate work that the trade union movement is undertaking in pursuit of decent work and dignified lives.

The governance of our universities… no hang on, don’t turn the page yet - what’s going on in higher education at the moment is an important bellwether of how employers and the Scottish Government regard Trade Unions.

At the moment how Universities are governed varies institution to institution. In some the Chair of the Governing body is elected and in others they’re appointed by Committees themselves made up in part of appointees. Governing bodies are important both because they make the decisions that affect UCU members’ work and lives but also because universities have a key role to play in society and the economy.

In 2012 an independent review carried out by a University Principal, Current Chair of Court, and STUC and student representatives recommended, amongst other proposals, that all Chairs be elected and that Trade Union and student nominees have places on the new more democratic Governing bodies. The Scottish Government have promised legislation and recently ran a consultation on these proposals.

So far so uncontroversial you would think – elections, democracy and Trade Union nominees on the Board of institutions that receive over one billion pounds of public money each year.

Apparently not so. Universities’ Scotland, the body that represents University Principals, described proposals to include Trade Union nominees onto Governing bodies as ‘undemocratic’ and worse also described the inclusion of Trade Union nominees as being contrary to the Nolan Principles of Public Life - selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. That Principals believe trade unionists on University Courts wouldn’t be able to act in a way conducive to those standards betrays a mind-set that is stuck in the 1980s rather than one which recognises the positive role of Trade Unions.

Universities are and must be autonomous, independent bodies but in return for substantial public funding the least Government should demand is a robust and transparent governance framework. The truth is that the current system simply doesn’t work. This year alone we’ve seen some Principals awarded pay rises of up to 13 per cent and many of the awards are shrouded in secrecy. This year UCU submitted freedom of information requests for copies of Universities’ Remuneration Committee Minutes. Out of 16 requests sent three simply refused to send any Minutes at all and of those that did almost twenty per cent significantly redacted the Minutes. This is despite assurances made following previous criticism that higher education in Scotland was now setting the benchmark for transparency.

On one side of the debate you have the staff in our Universities represented by the Trade Unions on campuses and the students under the leadership of NUS Scotland. On the other, University Principals who believe that things are just fine (at least for them) as things stand at present. The question is who Ministers will listen to? What they decide is an important indicator for the SNP Government under the new leadership of Nicola Sturgeon and an early test for her new Education Secretary, Angela Constance. She can choose either to make our Universities more democratic, representative and transparent or on the other hand to listen to Principals who attack Trade Unions and our right to be involved in Universities’ governance.

University and College Union, Scotland

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