It is a bit of a mystery. Why is the Scottish Government blowing the PR war about the Higher Education Bill? Those of you with faith in the power of the dark arts might attribute this to the influence of Kevin Pringle. The long-term SNP spinner and Sunday Times columnist recently joined public affairs consultants Charlotte Street Partners, and is reportedly using his considerable powers to advise the university heirarchy on opposing this Bill.
But the lack of a clear message emanating from St Andrew's House is befuddling - and frustrating - for many folk in academic life, far more sympathetic to the Scottish Government's agenda than the heid yins who manage our institutions.
The legislation was in Committee in Holyrood this week, and once again, in selling the proposals to introduce a little democracy into university structures, ministers seem caught, inarticulately, between hollow, technocratic wonkiness and a defensive, apologetic political line. This is completely unnecessary. Why aren’t the Scottish Government arguing the democratisation case more clearly?
The short Bill does a number of things. It sets out principles of academic freedom. It introduces rules on the composition of the governing bodies and academic boards of higher education institutions, enshrining, in law, minimum levels of student, academic and trade union representation. It will require every university's governing body - the notionally independent body, responsible for holding senior university officers to account and balancing the powers of principals - to be chaired by a senior lay member elected by students and staff.
In response, this week, a number of unelected university chairs sent a remarkable letter to the media, arguing that the election of university chairs by students and staff of their institutions would somehow undermine equality and diversity. Iain Macwhirter - a former University of Edinburgh rector himself - gave them both barrels here.
As I was asked to fill in for Andrew Wilson in the Scotland on Sunday this weekend, I thought I'd take the opportunity to try to make the case the Scottish Government is signally failing to. "Far from the SNP playing fast and loose with the democratic traditions of Scotland, this Bill is in the best of those traditions. Rectors are an expression of the democratic intellect, nourished in our ancient universities, and now, finally, being extended across the country, to our newer institutions."
You can read the whole thing here.
For those of you with access behind the paywall, I also had a bit in Thursday's Times this week, inspired by this harrowing portrait of Tereszka, and the child refugee's heart-breaking depiction of "home". It has lessons for today too, I think.