NEW legislation to reform the way universities are governed has caused deep divisions in higher education.

While students and academics have applauded moves to open up the running of the powerful ruling Courts that run universities, there has been sustained criticism from principals who have warned the very autonomy which drives the sector is under threat.

The origins of the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill, which was published this week, date back to 2011 when a number of universities, including Glasgow and Strathclyde, brought forward course cuts.

There was a strong feeling from the wider communities these institutions serve that consultations with staff and students were rudimentary at best and that decisions were motivated by economic considerations rather than academic ones. There were also long-running concerns over the spiralling salaries of principals and the increasing autonomy of their management teams.

Michael Russell, the then Education Secretary, sensed an opportunity to scrutinise the affairs of universities more closely at a time when questions had been asked within government about how accountable universities were for the millions of pounds of public money invested in them every year.

As a result, a review of governance in Scottish universities was convened and it reported to ministers in 2012 with a number of radical suggestions, including staff and students helping to set principals' pay and a requirement that 40 per cent of governing body members should be women.

While some of these fell by the wayside, the two most controversial recommendations which made it to the Bill were that all universities should have elected chairs and that trade union members should sit on Court.

After the legislation was published, the old divisions resurfaced with Universities Scotland saying there was potential for "confusion and muddled accountability" with an elected chair and that the appointment of trade union members introduced the concept of "interest groups" on university Courts for the first time.

In contrast, student body NUS Scotland and the UCU Scotland lecturers' union welcomed the Bill as a "major step forward" which would make universities more democratic, representative, and transparent.

But there is a concerning aspect of the proposed legislation which has not yet been the subject of much discussion.

While the Bill would make it law for universities to have elected chairs, there is nothing which explains how that role would fit in with the existing post of rector at Scotland's ancient universities - who are already elected and who chair meetings of Court.

In addition, there are no details of how elections would work or who would make up the electorate. Instead, the Bill merely includes a regulation allowing further dialogue over the development of "as consensual a model for elected chairs as possible".

If no-one can be certain how elections will operate until after the legislation is passed, how are those opposed to elections expected to offer concrete objections as the Bill passes through the Scottish Parliament? This lack of proper oversight is hardly compatible with the principals of good governance espoused by the Bill.