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Consultation Paper on a Higher Education Governance Bill


Annex A: Higher Education in Scotland: In Context

Scotland's higher education system is world class, with 4 of our institutions in the top 200 in the world. It is a sector that is steeped in history with institutions founded as far back as St Andrews in 1410, alongside the University of Highland and Islands, which was founded in 1992. Governing the oldest of those institutions is legislation dating back as far as The Universities (Scotland) Act 1858.

Our institutions are regulated by a landscape made up of papal bulls, statutes, statutory instruments and royal charters. This landscape, which has evolved over a number of years, has created a diverse range of systems and approaches to governance across the institutions.

Existing Governance Arrangements

The 19 Scottish universities/higher education institutions (HEIs) are commonly divided into three groups:

  • ancient universities;
  • chartered universities of the mid-20th century; and
  • post-1992 'new' universities and 'small specialist institutions'.

Ancient Universities

The 'ancient universities', (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews), are subject to the Universities (Scotland) Acts of 1858, 1889, 1922, 1932 and 1966. These Acts make provision for the main statutory bodies and officers: the Court, the Senate (Academic Board), the General Council; the Chancellor, the Principal and Vice Chancellor, and the Rector, and set out the powers and duties of those statutory bodies, as well as specifying their composition. Governance is regulated by resolutions, made by the university, which do not require Privy Council approval and ordinances, which do require the approval of Privy Council. The Universities (Scotland) Act 1966 ("the 1966 Act") sets out the procedure for making resolutions and makes provision for the University Courts to exercise, by resolution, a wide range of powers, including the institution of new degrees and degree regulations. Ordinances are required mainly for Court constitutional matters.

Chartered Universities

The 'chartered universities', (Dundee, Heriot-Watt, Stirling, Strathclyde and the Open University in Scotland), were established by royal charter in the 1960s. Each university's charter sets out the powers and functions of the university as well as identifying the key officers and committees within the university's structure. It sets the general framework under which the universities are governed through statutes, made by the University Court (governing body) but subject to Privy Council approval, as well as ordinances and regulations that are not subject to Privy Council approval. The Charter defines the objects, powers, officers, teaching, research and examining body and includes such fundamental powers as those of awarding degrees. The university's statutes prescribe details concerning the members and officers of the university, the membership and functions of statutory bodies (including Court and Academic Board), and other miscellaneous provisions.

Post-1992 Universities/Small Specialist Institutions

The 'new' universities, (Abertay, Glasgow Caledonian, Edinburgh Napier, Robert Gordon, Queen Margaret Edinburgh, Highlands and Islands, and West of Scotland), were designated as universities under the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992 ("the 1992 Act"). The constitutional governance arrangements for the 'new universities' and the other higher education institutions, commonly known as the small specialist institutions, variously draw on a mixture of the 1992 Act, the Companies Acts and other legislation. In most cases governance arrangements are set out in a statutory order of the Privy Council made under section 45 of the 1992 Act. The 'small specialist institutions' are Glasgow School of Art, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Scotland's Rural College (SRUC).

In addition to the instruments that established them, Scotland's higher education institutions are also subject to various pieces of legislation, some of which apply across the whole sector, while others apply only to specific institutions or to sub-sets within the sector. For example, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act 2002, which legislates for complaints handling, relates to all institutions across the sector.

While the legislative and constitutional arrangements vary, universities are all independent corporate institutions with charitable status and with a governing body that is responsible for the overall direction and strategy of the institution, and is accountable, alongside the Principal, for its resources.

General Governance Structures

Responsibility for governance within universities normally rests with the university court and the academic board. The court and academic board establish committees to assist them in their work.

The diagram below illustrates a typical organisational committee structure for the governing body of a Scottish university.

typical organisational committee structure for the governing body of a Scottish university

The Court/Governing Body

Every Scottish university is headed by a governing body (most commonly called the court) which carries ultimate responsibility for overseeing the institution's activities and resources, determining its strategic direction and delivering the mission for the benefit of the institution and its learners. The governing body also ensures compliance with the provisions regulating the institution, its framework of governance and all other relevant legal requirements/obligations. Generally, there are around 25 members, with a clear independent majority, drawn from academic staff, senior managers, students, graduate alumni, the local authority and lay (independent) members from the local/business community. The chair is responsible for the leadership of the governing body and for its effectiveness, ensuring the institution is well connected with its stakeholders, including staff and students.

The Academic Board (or Senate /Academic Council)

Chaired by the University Principal, the Academic Board (or Senate /Academic Council) is the body within universities responsible for decisions relating to the academic work of the university and for considering the development of the institution's academic activities. Academic Board decisions on academic matters which have financial or resource implications are subject to approval by the Court. Conversely, decisions by the Court which have academic implications are normally subject to consultation with the Academic Board. Membership is generally drawn from within the university and can be made up of Professors, Heads of Schools, non-professorial staff and student members.

University Committees

The university's committee structure is an important part of its governance processes. It is common practice for the governing body to delegate some of its powers and work to committees. Committees commonly deal with matters such as finance, estates, staffing, audit, remuneration and nominations to the governing body.

The General Council

The General Council is a corporate body of all senior academics and graduates presided over by the Chancellor. It plays an advisory role to the Court in the governance of the University. The General Council elects the Chancellor, the nominal head of the university, and also elects its Assessors, who are their representatives on the University Court.

University Principal

The Principal (or Director in the case of the Glasgow School of Art and Open University in Scotland) is responsible for the executive management and day-to-day operations of the institution, and is appointed by and accountable to the Court. The Principal is the designated officer in respect of the use of SFC funds and compliance with the SFC's Financial Memorandum which sets out the conditions of funding to institutions.

University Rector/Chair of Court

The four ancient universities and the University of Dundee have the office of Rector. The Rector is elected by the students, except in the case of Edinburgh, where the Rector is elected by the students and staff. In all but Dundee the Rector has the right to chair meetings of the governing body. The practice generally adopted in the other institutions is for there to be a chair that is elected by the independent members of court.