Who makes decisions in the University? And why does it matter?

A spectre is haunting the universities of Scotland –  the spectre of democracy. The Scottish Government is currently discussing university governance, and is likely to introduce legislation in the coming months. This might sound very dry, but it is of the utmost importance – it will redefine how decisions are made in universities: how, what, where and who. So if you care about how your university is run, whether that’s the housing, courses or cafes, then the results of this discussion are important.

So, what is being proposed? Well first, we should have a quick look at how the University of Edinburgh is currently governed.


Edinburgh shares the core of its governance structures with the other ancient universities of Scotland: Glasgow, Aberdeen,  St Andrews and Dundee. At the very top are two main bodies: Senatus Academicus (the Senate) and University Court.

The Senate deals with academic questions. Its overall role is to regulate teaching and research of the university. Its membership is huge: all Professors, heads of schools, a number of other elected academic staff, and some student representatives. In the past, Edinburgh’s Senate has met regularly and properly debated issues before reaching decisions. Now its role is mor
Mark Ballard for RectorThe Court deals with non-academic questions like issues of finance, estates and administration. Technically the Court can override the Senate’s decisions but this would normally never happen. Court’s membership is based on the principle of who the University should serve: students, staff and the wider community. It is chaired by the Rector, who is elected by staff and students.e to rubber-stamp decisions taken elsewhere, primarily its subcommittees.

In addition to this there are:

  • 3 General Council Assessors – elected by the alumni
  • 4 Senatus Assessors – elected by the Senate
  • 8 Lay members from the wider community who are appointed by the Court, on the recommendation of the Principal.
  • 1 non-teaching staff assessor (elected)
  • 1 City of Edinburgh Council Assessor – appointed by the City Council
  • 1 Chancellor’s Assessor – appointed by the Chancellor (currently Princess Royal)
  • The Principal
  • 2 student members (the President and VP Academic Affairs of EUSA)

This is how the Court and Senate work on paper, but in reality they are very different.

From theory to practice

So, in theory the Court should be powerhouse of decision-making, where the Principal is rigorously questioned and interrogated from a variety of perspectives to ensure that his decisions are in the best interests of the students, the staff and the wider community. Similarly, the Senate should be a hotbed of academic debate, where students and staff come together to collaboratively shape the intellectual production of the University. But this is not the case for either body.

The Court is something of a sounding board for the Principal and senior management’s ideas. Discussions at Court involve members suggesting minor tweaks to a proposed plan but it would be unheard of for the Court to vote against the Principal’s recommendations. This is very problematic. Court should not be a group of special advisors who fully support the central administration, it should be an effective body of scrutiny. And this means that there should be a variety of different perspectives present there. Right now, for all the apparent diversity of the Court (8 different groupings of members) all the members, excluding the student representatives, share remarkable similarities. Of the 19 non-student members 14 are men, all are white, and the vast majority (if not all) hold other permanent positions of high status (Professors, people with Royal honours, directors of large corporations). Is this reflective of the staff and local community who they are supposed to represent? Most people are not white men in positions of great power and influence. Moreover, most people’s interests are not the same as those of this elite minority.

The Senate’s real life role is also greatly different to the one on paper. With its 700+ members effective decision-making is fairly difficult, so no decisions are actually made by Senate. Instead, these decisions are delegated to the Senate subcommittees which are populated primarily by senior university management. These subcommittees each have between 10 and 20 members, so while a Senate of 700+ sounds open and inclusive, in actual fact it is again only a small minority who are able to participate in decision-making. And again, that minority is not representative of the university population.

How might this change?

In June 2011, the Scottish Government commissioned a review of higher education governance.  In January 2012 it gave its recommendations, the vast majority of which are progressive and highly welcome (link). Here are some highlights:

Student involvement in decision-making

The report recommends that students should be represented on all University Courts and Senates (something which we at Edinburgh enjoy already), and also on remuneration committees – the bodies which decide the pay of the Principal and senior university staff.

A more representative Court

The report advocates having an elected chair (like our Rector) but also that she or he should be paid. This will go part of the way to making the role more accessible to a wider section of society. Similarly expenses should be available to all members, including loss of wages.

They also advised that staff representation should be expanded. The role of Senate Assessor should be continued but in addition to this there should also be 2 members directly elected from the entire staff population. There should also be a representative from an academic trade union, and one from an administrative, technical or support staff union.
The number of alumni (General Council) assessors should be reduced to no more than 2. There should be two student representatives: one should be the Student President, and at least one should be a woman.

Overall, the membership of the court should be at least 40% female.

An effective Senate

Senate should remain the final arbiter on academic matters but should be empowered to make decisions itself. The board should not normally have more than 120 members and the majority should be elected by the constituency that they represent. Moreover, there should be substantive (not tokenistic) student representation.

How should we react?

The vast majority of these recommendations should be welcomed by students and student associations’. Greater student participation in decision-making can only be good for us. The number of times that I hear of a university initiative which would have been so much better with student involvement is unbelievable. University management may be well-intentioned but they simply do not have the ‘on the ground’ experience that students can draw from.

We should also welcome the Senate’s transformation into an effective and democratic body. I can think of no other body with so much influence where the members cannot all fit into a room at once, and where the average attendance is around 10%. (The closest equivalent would probably be the House of Lords). Making Senate smaller and more representative will make it more effective, and this means that learning and teaching will be more aligned to students’ interests.

As for the representativeness, it is my view that there is a severe lack of diversity on both Court and Senate. Trade unions, for instance, see a different side of the University to most of us. Having that perspective represented on the University Court would be a hugely valuable addition. In terms of gender, it is a scandal how few women are involved in high level decisions at this university, particularly given that 60% of students are women. Similarly, there is a great lack of involvement from people outside of positions of power.

One argument that I have heard against this is from Mike Williamson. He claims that  it doesn’t matter who is on the Court and Senate because all important decisions are made elsewhere: subcommittees, Principal’s Strategy Group, Central Management Group etc. There is some truth in this but I think that it misses the point.

Senate and Court are still sovereign in law. Over time, they have surrendered parts of their responsibility to other bodies but it would only take them demanding their power back for it to happen. With a newly constituted Court and Senate there is potential for this to happen. It’s not a certainty by any means, but it would become a possibility.

What does this mean?

For me, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to shape the future of higher education in Scotland. If these recommendations pass into legislation they will form one of the biggest shake-ups of university governance in centuries. And while universities in England are transitioning into faceless corporations, higher education in Scotland can serve as a beacon of progress for the rest of the world.

It is right that decisions should be taken by the people who they affect: staff, students, trade unions, people in the local community. And it is vital that the bodies which are empowered to make these decisions are able to do so.

The recommendations of the von Prondzynski Report strikes the heart of what a university is. They should be about learning and knowledge; where students and academics work together to further understand and improve our world. If the Scottish Government introduces legislation along these lines it will be a massive win for students, staff and the wider community. More importantly, it will mark a great success for democracy.


3 thoughts on “Who makes decisions in the University? And why does it matter?

  1. Maybe a reform will lead to wider access to edinburgh for those who are from an fe background. The irony is that this is indeed asuccess for students in universities if it forces a reform. The government comments are good for associations and for the student voice, but down in the doldrums of society aka fe colleges in Scotland there is an attack on education. There is investment and reform to benefit the elite in education but the lower and working class are being robbed of the opportunities through regionalisation and a reduction in student support(yes they will try again). I have to wonder what would happen if Scotland had a system that didn’t separate the haves from the have nots. I hope the students of edinburgh recognise the need for reform to push out those who put snobbery old school values over opportunities.society would benefit and so would the reputation of our Education system.

  2. I agree very much with the direction you are taking – daunting as it seems. I am thinking that there is a pedagogical piece involving international students here as well. Thousands of postgraduates at Edinburgh would like to bring innovative educational models and ideas to their home countries. I think they are looking for viable alternatives to the profit-driven models that now dominate in every respect-even in our curriculum!. If we can effectively turn Edinburgh around – and comprehensively examine the way in which this correction could be better integrated into the curriculum – this will provide a quite significant chain of positive reactions throughout the world of education — i am positive about this! For one – particularly in the home countries of our international students (many become prominent leaders) would impact local perceptions and ideas of education, the way democratic institutions within education can function effectively, and exposes the emptiness of profit-driven models and capitalism in education in general.

    Anyway, best of luck and I think you will find a great deal of support is already in place to make some radical changes!

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