University leaders have rejected calls for trade union representatives to be given a seat on the powerful governing bodies that run higher education institutions.


Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, said the appointment of members of academic trade unions would be a "damaging" influence that would undermine democracy, sparking an angry response from unions.

The row comes at the close of a Scottish Government consultation on good governance in higher education which proposes a raft of changes - including the introduction of trade union members to ruling Courts.

Mary Senior, Scotland official for the UCU union, which represents academics and support staff, dismissed the Universities Scotland claims.

She said: "Universities rightly recognise trade unions to negotiate on behalf of all staff in the workplace, so it seems odd that university principals think trade unions are incapable of enhancing good governance in their institutions.

"The suggestion that having a trade union representative on a governing body is undemocratic is nonsense, particularly when coming from principals who seem to get inflation-busting pay hikes each year.

"Surely robust governance and effective scrutiny of the decisions made by well paid principals and senior managers would benefit from having trade union participation."

The proposed Higher Education Governance Bill follows criticism by lecturers at the universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow that consultations on proposed cuts to courses and jobs were flawed.

There have also been long-running concerns over the spiralling salaries of principals and the increasing autonomy of their management teams.

The submission from Universities Scotland to the Bill consultation said the proposal on trade unions would undermine the democratic nature of Courts.

It states: "The proposal to designate places on governing bodies for union representatives would diminish the democratic basis of higher education governance, by introducing individuals whose role would be to provide the staff perspective, but who had not been elected by all relevant staff."

The submission warned that the plan would also contravene a "fundamental principle" that no governing body member should act as a representative of an interest group.

"Trade unionists nominated to governing bodies as representatives of their trade union would find themselves in a fundamentally conflicted personal position, with a conflict between their corporate responsibility as members of the governing body and their representative responsibility to act in accordance with a trade union mandate which may be opposed to the policies of the governing body," it adds.

Gordon Maloney, president of student body NUS Scotland, also described the submission from Universities Scotland as disappointing.

He said: "A previous review argued for strong staff representation on governing bodies and excluding trade unions would seriously limit these proposals.

"Universities in Scotland have failed for hundreds of years to appoint anything resembling a representative group of people to their decision-making bodies and it would be naïve in the extreme to the think that they're suddenly going to change."

The consultation comes three years after the publication of a review of university governance chaired by Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, in Aberdeen.

The review recommended governing bodies should ensure at least 40 per cent of their membership was female, called for elected chairs and recommended staff and students should be involved in the appointment, appraisal and salary setting of principals.

The Universities Scotland submission went on to criticise the suggestion chairs of Court should be elected.

The paper agues the move would damage the ability to attract a wider diversity of candidates to chair governing bodies because of the requirement to stand for "adversarial" election.

Professor Pete Downes, convener of Universities Scotland said: "Principals believe in inclusive, transparent and robustly accountable models of governance.

"We are utterly convinced that universities are most successful when they can operate with high levels of autonomy as the evidence from around the world supports this.

"Therefore some of the proposals are very worrying as they would unquestionably move Scotland towards a less autonomous model of university governance and impose greater uniformity in a one-size-fits-all approach."