14 February 2016

Weekend Reading

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.

8 comments :

  1. Your account of the 2006 rectorial election brings back vivid memories, though I'm struggling to remember who I voted for. I hung on Mick Napier's every word at the time, but I don't think that I voted for Pilger (he seemed a bit boring). I have a horrible feeling that I might have voted for Ballard. In mitigation, a previous Green rector, Robin Harper, had been very impressive.

    My hero Evelyn Waugh once stood for rector at Edinburgh. In his address to the students, he confessed that he had never voted in a general election, and that he was a "conscientious objector" to democracy. He didn't win.

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    1. For some reason, I've always remembered this episode particularly clearly. It was perhaps something about the phase in which it fell, in my undergraduate "journey". Second year, second term, now comfortable in place, not quite so teenaged...

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    2. 'playing fast and loose with the democratic traditions of Scotland'

      Tnat was of course a quote from Gordon Brown. Always a bit suspicious about this appeal which pops up reguarly in Scottish debate, like a fairgroumd whack-a-mole attraction. It is the rhetorical bidey-in partner of our authoritarian traditions perhaps.

      If anyone hasn't read Andrew's Times Tereszka piece I urge them to do so. One of the best things I have read this year and I exoect I will be saying that in December.

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    3. I tend to chalk this one up as aspiration, rather than description. Not least, because it encourages a less superstitious attitude towards the concept of traditions, more generally.

      Kind of you to say on the Times piece, Edwin. I was reasonably happy with the final shape of it.

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    4. Does (did) Scotland have a democratic tradition? As usual, it depends a lot on what you mean. Many people wrongly confuse democracy with egalitarianism. Democracy is about ways of making collective decisions; egalitarianism is about – well – treating people equally.

      Scotland’s record varies between different fields. In religion there’s not much doubt that presbyterianism is more egalitarian than episcopalianism or Roman Catholicism, and it’s also more democratic if it is working properly.

      In general social life there’s a fair bit of evidence that Scotland was historically more egalitarian than England. When Jamie the Saxt went south the English were appalled by the free and easy way he addressed those around him – no proper sense of dignity or social hierarchy. At least up to the Education act of 1872 education was more accessible in Scotland than in England. Questions of democracy in the strict sense don’t generally arise here.

      In politics the evidence is more mixed. Before the 19th century the Scottish electorate was more limited than in England and arguably even more venal – nothing to be specially proud of. Over all, it’s maybe more accurate to praise Scotland for egalitarianism than for democracy.

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    5. Short version? Yes and no. Almost always the right answer to almost every nuanced question.

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  2. Re Tereszka. Oh Andrew. Forty odd years working with the public have reduced my expectations to a minimum.

    *Phone call, Muirhouse Library, circa 1995.*

    "When are yooz open ower Christmas?" I explained that, like the rest of the country, we were shut Christmas and Boxing DaY.

    "Whit a ma gonny dae with ma bairns!?" came the reply...

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  3. A certain 1966 university, since relocated to a campus just to the west of Edinburgh, did indeed have a rather autocratic principal. I shall not name him since the chap is no longer of this earth and so cannot defend himself. Noted for a capacity to surround himself with luxurious furnishings, he was rather less well respected by the numerous support staff who disappeared to make what one could call "necessary economies".

    No rector at the said institution. Enough said.

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