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Class Conscious: universities find their voice over SNP "power grab"

When Education Secretary Michael Russell published details of new legislation for colleges and universities at the tail end of last year the response from the sector was surprisingly muted.

Contained within the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill are extensive new powers that allow ministers to set priorities for universities in return for their public funding - including ensuring institutions comply with new rules on governance.

It also gives the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), which administers public money on behalf of the Government, powers to review the provision of courses.

As expected, the proposals provoked the usual clamour from opposition politicians who warned of a "power grab" that would "diminish the autonomy" of universities.

But Universities Scotland, the organisation that lobbies on behalf of university principals, was more circumspect, with Professor Pete Downes, the organisation's convener, making only a general plea for continuing "freedom".

As the Scottish Parliament's education committee prepares to take evidence on the Bill, more critical voices are beginning to emerge.

Last week, Alan Simpson, who leads the body that represents the chairs of university Courts, said the legislation would pave the way for the greatest political influence over higher education for more than a century.

And this week the first university principal to break cover on the issue has warned the Bill risks undermining the ability of the sector to compete on the global stage.

Professor Sir Jim McDonald, principal of Strathclyde University, highlights his concerns in a written submission to Holyrood's education committee.

"The university accepts the need for the sector to demonstrate that public investment in higher education results in positive outcomes for students, the broad economy and wider society," he said.

"Our strategy and innovative approach is due to the fleetness of foot and flexibility of approach which the principle of responsible autonomy and appropriate accountability already in place provides.

"The Bill should reinforce the principle of responsible autonomy which has served us so well in Scotland, and Parliament should be wary of the unintended consequences of changes which might, at some point in the future, be used to undermine this principle, and in doing so undermine Scotland's ability to compete in an increasingly competitive global higher education environment."

Until now, universities have been reluctant to criticise the Government, partly because of their generous Budget settlement at a time when college funding has been cut, but the signs are the mood is changing fast.

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Education

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