Billet Report


The General Council of the University of Edinburgh

Report By Professor Charles Swainson Convener of the Business Committee of the General Council

The General Council provides graduates with a continuing voice in the management of the University’s affairs, and every graduate automatically becomes a member. Academic staff and members of the University’s governing body, the University Court, are also members of the General Council. It meets twice a year and has the right to comment on matters affecting the University’s prosperity and wellbeing. For more information on the work of the General Council, visit

This has been a busy time for your Business Committee. Considerable effort has been expended countering the potential bad effects of the Scottish Government’s new Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill.

Despite previous submissions by the higher education sector and your Committee, the result of consultation has been nil. No substantive changes are proposed. To further press the case for change, I and your Secretary emailed all alumni with email addresses asking them to review the proposals and our criticisms of them, and write then to their MSPs or the Cabinet Secretary for Education. Hundreds of you responded. Although a few were in favour of the proposals, the democratic majority shared our concerns and took action – many thanks to those who did. The replies we have seen from SNP MSPs simply repeat the party line that “all is well in this best of all possible worlds”. Other parties have different views.

Your University Court already has a chair elected by the students and staff (the Rector), a vice-chair (the Vice-Convener) appointed by the Court to take the performance management role of holding the Principal to account, academic staff elected by Senate, Assessors elected by the alumni, students elected by the students (EUSA President and Vice-President), and a member elected by the non-teaching staff. These arrangements were hard won and are valued by our University community. They have served us well and are echoed by the other Universities covered by the 1858 Act.

In my knowledge, there has not been a serious problem. The Code of Governance, implemented over the past three years, is working and has brought change in all institutions – so where is the problem? The problems of poor governance highlighted by the Auditor General are specific to the Colleges sector; reform is not needed everywhere. Yet the Scottish Government remains silent and unable to explain the need for this Bill, other than to “ensure value for the public purse”. When did the law ever achieve that?

The answers may lie elsewhere. Governments are about control, and higher education with its research and learning are outside Government directive, particularly those such as Edinburgh that derive the smaller part of their income from Scottish tuition fees. The pernicious part of this Bill is nothing to do with education; it’s the provision that allows any secondary legislation to be enacted by regulation without parliamentary or public scrutiny. Protest then will be futile: it’s law. Why would you do that if your intentions were benign? Again, silence. We have no clue as to the government’s future intentions for the sector, therefore we should not sleepwalk into such a situation. Universities thrive and are valuable to society when they are strong, independent and havens of dissent and contrary views, the essential requirements for innovation.

To other matters. Your committee contributed to a successful Alumni Weekend in June with an interview with the Principal, conducted by Sir Philip Mawer, and a reception, which were well attended. Plans are in place now for the June 2016 Half-Yearly Meeting in London. It will be less formal, more interactive and I hope very interesting as a result.

Your Committee continues to support the staff and students with efforts to improve the student experience, but this has been an uphill struggle, despite considerable investment, with little progress in some key National Student Survey metrics. Your Committee welcomes the appointment of Senior Vice Principal Charlie Jeffery to lead a more focused effort of improvement, including more evident support for excellence in teaching. I’m excited as we start a new term: there is much to do. See our elections coming up, and join us in supporting this great University.