FIVE former rectors say“backroom deals” must be driven out of Scottish universities to support increased democracy.

Earlier this week it emerged umbrella body Universities Scotland has written to Education Minister Angela Constance hitting out against plans to introduce elected chairs to governance boards across the higher education sector.

The organisation, which represents 19 institutions, told Constance public votes would “inevitably be adversarial”.

It also claimed the Scottish Government plan “will reverse the excellent progress that has been made towards achieving equality and diversity within this important role in higher education governance”.

Senior officials also claimed that they would not have applied for their posts if election had been necessary.

But yesterday a group of five former rectors issued a joint statement dismissing the claims.

Writers Iain MacWhirter and Peter McColl and former MSP Mark Ballard, who all served at Edinburgh

University, made the statement along with National columnist and ex-Glasgow University rector Pat Kane and former diplomat Craig Murray, who was elected at Dundee University. All were chosen by students and, in some cases, staff to governing boards and – with the exception of Dundee University – chaired those panels.

In a statement released by the Common Weal think tank, which backs changes in the Higher Education Bill, they said: “Claims have been made this week that if there is a democratic election for the person who chairs the governing body of a university, no-one with ability or talent will put their name forward.

“As five people who have been elected to chair a university court we would contest this claim in the strongest possible terms.

“For every person who is handed their place on a university court who would refuse to seek a democratic mandate there must be hundreds of people with just as much to offer those universities who will never be considered.

“We believe that introducing this element of democracy will substantially widen the pool of talent which can be drawn from and will most certainly not narrow it.

“Back room deals are no way to run public institutions in the 21st century and we support proposals to introduce a real democratic voice.”

They went on: “We are glad that the chairs finally recognise that the intention of the Higher Education Bill is not to eliminate the right of rectors to chair university court.

“But their further suggestion that chairs should not be elected, but appointed by the unelected governors, is illogical and surely contradicts the founding principle of the elected rectorship.

“The idea that elected chairs in Scotland’s universities and higher education institutions would undermine ‘equality and diversity’ is like saying democracy itself leads to inequality.”

Mary Senior of the UCU trade union, which represents around 7,000 higher education workers, said an elected chair “will make a real and positive difference” to the 14 Scottish institutions without a rector.

Cuts risk university’s global reputation

D UNDEE University’s reputation as an internationally respected research and teaching institute is under threat because of a £10 million funding gap, according to its principal, writes Greg Russell.

The warning came in a leaked letter to staff from Professor Sir Pete Downes, who is also the institute’s vice-chancellor, in which he said the prospect of cuts to crucial fields was “a real threat to our financial stability”.

He said an estimated cut of three per cent in Scottish Government funding along with a rise of two per cent in pension and National Insurance contributions would lead to “significant cost savings”.

Downes said: “We have an imbalance in our research/ teaching profile that needs to be corrected so that the costs of our research can be better matched against the income we can generate through teaching.

“The negative implications this has for our finances has brought us to a point where we have to fundamentally look at the sustainability of the university and consider the shape and size of the institution.”

Labour has called for real-term protection for spending on education over the next five years.

Iain Gray, the party’s opportunity spokesman, said: “The First Minister pledged to make education the driving and defining priority of her government. Instead we are seeing universities having to make swingeing cuts because of the SNP budget.”

However, a Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We have invested over £4 billion in the higher education sector over the last four years.

“Notwithstanding a very tough budget round, we will continue to invest over £1bn in our higher education institutions in 2016-17, ensuring all our institutions receive financial support to enable them to deliver high-quality teaching, world-class research and knowledge exchange.”