UNIVERSITIES are strange institutions in many ways. They are neither entirely public bodies nor totally private entities. They have evolved over the centuries as new ones have been established and ancient ones have been preserved. Academic independence is rightfully cherished and strategic direction strenuously protected.

They’re entitled to their views and their voice even when I’ve disagreed with it. But they don’t exist in an ivory tower, but are rooted in Scotland and her communities. They’re not just part of Scotland’s history but a vital part of the nation’s future. In many cities and towns they’re among the largest employers. Even in Edinburgh and Glasgow the payroll of the combined universities is one of the biggest sources of employment, often for many who have never completed further education themselves. The jobs matter to the individuals and the city. Staff take pride in educating other people’s children, even if their own may sometimes not be progressing down an academic route.


Likewise, in a knowledge age they’re the key to keeping the city and the country at the forefront of not just technological but economic progress. It’s not just been ground-breaking research such as Dolly the Sheep or other modern wonders but small and even large spin-offs that have evolved from them. Commercialising them was necessary, and the universities are to be praised for their business acumen and support for economic growth. All over Scotland, and from the new universities as well as the ancients, ideas and businesses have sprung.

Scotland’s all the better for them, in what they do locally and internationally, not just the intellectual capital but the added value. It’s an area where the country punches well above its weight, and one in which the nation should rightfully take pride. For a land of just over five million to be doing so well is truly remarkable.

READ MORE: Rector Aamer Anwar launches savage attack on Glasgow University

Universities have grown substantially in size and number since I first ventured inside in 1976. They’re international in their intake, which is a good thing, giving a cosmopolitan feel to our communities. The expansion of numbers from Europe and the Far East has added to those from England and Northern Ireland who were there when I was learning. Educating other people’s children as well as our own is a good and smart thing to do, especially when so many are paying handsomely for it.

But universities cannot be impervious to criticism or act in total isolation from the wider country and communities in which they are based – yet they are appearing more and more autocratic in their management and equally resentful of comment, never mind criticism from any source. That’s simply unacceptable.

The latest revelations of outrageous fat cat salaries with perquisites for principals varying from grace and favour mansions to other throwbacks almost from the days of the Raj are unedifying to say the least. And they’re truly shameful when juxtaposed with pension cuts and other benefit losses for academic staff, never mind the absence no doubt of any even reduced ones for many low paid employees.

Some so-called academic leaders even seem to give the impression that it's simply an historical anachronism that they’re Scottish institutions at all. Other than treasuring the ancient sites of learning in which they’re located forming splendid back drops for study, they seem almost contemptuous of the locals – a few Scottish students to be tholed for some native colour and character but concentrating mainly instead on the handsomely paying intake from abroad.

If they could headquarter themselves in Oxbridge or elsewhere they’d be off and simply fly the students in from abroad. They mirror some private schools who’ve changed the entire ethos of their founding fathers and become almost private businesses masquerading as educational charities. Some university leaders see themselves and indeed act almost as if they’re running global businesses not Scottish academic institutions. That needs to change.

READ MORE: Anger over decade of bumper pay rises for Scottish university principals

There needs to be greater democratisation within academia. At the moment it’s replicating some oligarchy where it’s about serving the elite not the community in which it’s located. It cannot be simply governmental direction, though they have rights given the significant funding given, but based also on the staff who serve them, the students who study in them and the communities which provide for them.

They’ll argue that they have such structures and that there’s a layer of democracy and accountability. Some of that’s true and most graduates like me play no part in our former alma maters running. But they’re almost structured to ensure that there’s neither the ability nor desire to participate. The governance is archaic and needs changed. They’re Scottish universities. not principals’ private fiefdoms.