A LAW requiring the election of University Court chairs has been criticised after a tiny number of eligible voters took part.

Only 2.2% of the electorate took part in a Dundee University election won by Ronnie Bowie, which amounted to 0.7% of students.

Scottish Tory shadow education secretary Liz Smith said: “These turnout figures bring in to question whether the new electoral system will be fully effective. It also means that those who are elected have a very limited mandate and that, in turn, draws into question accountability."

In 2016, Holyrood passed legislation backed by the SNP Government which had the aim of bringing greater accountability to universities.

Reforms included trade union representation on University Courts and the direct election of chairs, which supporters hoped would present a counter-balance to principals.

Students and staff would get a vote in the elections, which were presented as a democratisation of campus life.

Angela Constance, at that point the Education Secretary, described the passage of the Bill as an “important day” which would ensure “greater openness and transparency”.

She said: "Every voice on campus will be heard as part of elections for chairs, or senior lay members, with staff, students and union representatives involved in the whole recruitment and election process.”

However, the legislation was enacted despite criticism from Universities Scotland, which represents the principals.

The umbrella body was “extremely concerned” that chairs who did not have the confidence of governing bodies could be elected, an outcome they feared could create “conflict”.

Three years later, universities have either held their first elections or are preparing for a campus-wide ballot.

Of the 20,345 individuals who were eligible to vote in the poll at Dundee University, only 455 actually voted, a turnout of 2.2%.

An internal University document drilled down further into the figures. It revealed that while 79.1% of Court members voted, the number fell to 8.3% for staff and 0.7% for students.

The minute made clear that “disappointment” had been expressed at the low turnout: “Members agreed that in democratic terms it was arguable whether the requirements of the Act in relation to the election of the Chair provided a satisfactory platform for engagement in and awareness of institutional governance.”

It added: “Members noted that the University was potentially unique in being in a position where the incumbent Chair was standing for election, and that this may have impacted on both the number of applications and voter turnout, meaning that analysis relative to the sector would be valuable before drawing conclusions.”

At Aberdeen University, Esther Robertson was elected as “senior governor” – equivalent to a chair – after 7.46% of people voted. Nearly 20,000 staff and students were eligible to vote, but fewer than 1500 exercised this democratic right.

Smith added: “The Scottish Conservatives said at the time that the Scottish Government’s governance reforms were likely to place additional burdens on the sector without improving transparency in a way that was both workable and more democratic. We have not changed our view.”

Liam McCabe, president of the National Union of Students in Scotland, said: “NUS Scotland fully support all efforts for student and staff involvement in key decision-making, ensuring universities are representative and inclusive of the communities they serve.

“As democracy is embedded in the culture of our institutions in the future, we would hope and expect to see student turnout in these elections grow. We implore institutions to widely advertise these elections, ensuring maximum turnout, accessibility and accountability.”