by Mike Williamson

A few salvoes have been fired this week in the ideological battle for democratic and public higher education. Harriet Swain wrote an interesting exploratory article in the Guardian on Monday in which she asked “should students be given the power to decide how universities are run?”, followed quickly by comment pieces by Liam Burns, NUS National President on Tuesday, and by Michael Chessum, NUS National Executive Councillor and Godfather of the student left on Friday. Both of those pieces called for more democratic control of universities by students, not surprisingly. For socialists, the answer to Swain’s question is an emphatic ‘yes’. Universities should be run democratically, because all resources should be democratised, and universities are no different. But few have outlined what form that democracy should take, and it strikes me that we need to discuss who the democratic power is given to, and what relationship those people will have with the institution. With the recent release of the government-commissioned von Prondzynski report into Higher Education governance in Scotland on the one hand, and fears about institutions becoming more like private businesses on the other, now is a very apt time to be discussing how our institutions are run.


It shouldn’t be a surprise that Liam Burns, as a national student representative, calls for more power for students. He rather hits the nail on the head when he says that “student power must develop into much wider authority, with the ability not only to shape strategic decisions, expenditure and investments but to approve or veto them.” Having been a student representative and sat on plenty of university committees myself, I can confidently say that the current state of affairs is a far cry from that vision. With the token representation students currently have, our control over our institutions depends entirely on our ability to convince decisionmakers. Given that we have very little to threaten the university with, we are powerless to avoid being ignored when it suits senior management. We are, essentially, lobbyists without the buying power.


We can conceive of a University where students are in control, in fact the University of Bologna in Italy was founded on that sound principle. But collective representation of staff developed very quickly there, and as Chessum points out, it should not be forgotten in the design of our utopian university. Arguably every time we push for more student control, we end up curbing the power of academics over their own activity. Academic and non-academic staff at universities often have less formal representation than students. Just like in other workplaces, the recognised unions are sidelined and ignored, and instead staff are either poorly represented through ineffective bodies like the Senate, or they have token representation on governing bodies, positions which sometimes seem to be taken by stooges of senior management. Clearly the democratic structures also have to extend to staff.


So what role for the community? If education is a public good, then surely the public have the right to a say in how the institution is run. Universities will claim that they already do this very well, with the majority of governing bodies made up of external lay members from the ‘community’. In Aberdeen this means Big Oil, and presumably in St Andrews it means the local golf course proprietors, and almost invariably a smattering of investment bankers. But who should be playing this role? Should the government, as (in theory) the democratic representatives of the people, have more control over institutions? Would that threaten academic freedom? By a coincidence of their founding, the Universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews invite the Lord Provost of the local council to sit on their boards. Could those organisations perhaps have more power? What about the alumni of the University, as those who have seen the benefits of its social role? These are interesting questions as of yet unanswered by those calling for a more democratic education system.


Certainly my experience of the Ancient Universities in Scotland indicates that the governance structures they were founded upon have had their power taken away over the years by senior academics. Academic Senates have turned into unwieldy discussion forums with little decision-making power. University Courts are sounding boards for overpaid Vice Chancellors, made up largely of overpaid senior managers in major local businesses, appointed, for all intents and purposes, by the same Vice Chancellors they are supposed to hold to account. At the University of Edinburgh, almost all of the power lies in two committees called Principal’s Strategy Group and Central Management Group, and I imagine it must be fairly similar at other institutions. The papers and minutes of these committees are treated very enigmatically, and neither of them are open to any representatives of staff, students or the community. In many ways, although Vice Chancellors are already wailing and gnashing their teeth about it, the von Prondzynski report misses the point entirely. What does the composition of Court and Senate matter, when the University is not actually run by those committees? That’s a more behavioural problem to tackle, and not one that can easily be solved through mere legislation.