CONTROVERSIAL legislation to change the way Scottish universities are run will have a "devastating" impact on the international reputation of the SNP, a prominent female scientist has warned.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist and the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, said the growing perception across the world was that the Scottish Government was interfering in higher education.

Her comments came in an evidence session to the Scottish Parliament's education committee, which is scrutinising the proposed Higher Education Governance Bill.

The Bill includes proposals to appoint trade union members to universities' ruling Courts for the first time and make the powerful post of Court chair elected - potentially clashing with the historic role of rector.

Because the process of the appointment and election of governing body chairs will be detailed in ministerial regulations universities believe that will threaten their autonomy.

Senior administrators also fear ministerial interference will lead universities to be reclassified as public bodies which would end their status as charities and damage their ability to raise millions of pounds in additional money.

Dame Jocelyn told the committee the unintended consequences of the legislation were "really scary".

She said: "Starting about the time of the referendum, but picking up momentum now with this legislation, when I am abroad I find people saying to me: "What's happening to the Scottish universities".

"The implication is that there is interference, not quite articulated, the implication that there is suppression of critical thought. That is not a word you want to get abroad.

"That will be devastating for the SNP and the Scottish universities, but it's growing and it's out there already, so please everybody, take care."

Professor Sir Tim O'Shea, principal of Edinburgh University echoed the concerns saying the perception around the world is that the Bill would damage the anonymity of our universities.

Sir Tim went on to make a personal plea to MSPs to put the legislation on hold while the implications were examined more fully.

He said: "The reason why the universities in the UK are so successful compared to universities in other parts of Europe is put down to our autonomy.

"If this committee chooses to hand to some future minister of whose persuasion we know nothing such far-reaching powers, then at the moment you do that, that is such a powerful thing. That is why outside Scotland there is a perception of an attack on university autonomy, that is what has caused it.

"I'm going to make a personal plea, we've got something that works really well, this partnership between the Scottish Government and universities. Please pause on this legislation.

"If you go ahead with this legislation, it's unnecessary, and legislation that is unnecessary and too powerful will be seen correctly as a reduction in the autonomy of the Scottish universities."

However, Mary Senior, from the UCU lecturers' union, argued that the Bill could help make universities more accountable to staff and students.

She said: "Part of the reason why the Bill as currently read looks like it hands significant powers to Scottish ministers is because the cabinet secretary wanted the sector - that is principals, chairs, trade unions, students - to be able to come together to be able to work out a consensus on how we move forward on elected chairs."

Issues such as the use of zero-hours contracts by universities could be "more effectively scrutinised" if staff, students and trade unions are on an institution's governing body, she said.

"Tim made his plea to the committee. I would make an equally strong plea that the committee do enable this legislation go forward because it can make a big difference to how institutions operate. It's important that we do shine a light on some of the poorer decisions that universities have made."

Dame Jocelyn is credited with one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th Century.

She was a doctoral student at Cambridge University when she discovered the first pulsars - rapidly spinning neutron stars formed in supernova explosions.


During her distinguished career she has been president of both the Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society.