Universities question centralisation of Scottish quangos

11 Nov 16

Scottish universities are concerned that plans to co-ordinate the governance of four economy-related quangos under a single board could compromise their funding arrangements and independence.

Keith Brown, Scottish Cabinet secretary for the economy, announced last month that a review of Scottish Enterprise, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council would result in the creation of a central strategic body to align their activities. At the time, it was stressed that the four independent boards would remain under the new structure.

But in recent days that undertaking has increasingly looked to be a transitional arrangement, and executives have reportedly been told by government that the four existing boards will eventually be abolished to be replaced by a new statutory board, possibly under the chairmanship of a minister.

The plans have been bitterly attacked as rampant centralisation by opposition parties. There are particular concerns over the future of the Scottish Funding Council, which allocates funds in the tertiary education sector and is itself the result a decade ago of a merger between different bodies for further and higher education.

Alastair Sim, chief executive of Universities Scotland, said in a BBC radio interview that closer relations between universities and other economic bodies were welcome, but that the universities would be looking for assurances that they would be retaining their autonomy, competitiveness and ability to exercise initiative, not “brought in to a directive relationship from government.” 

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said it would be “completely unacceptable” for ministers to direct academic funding, while his Conservative counterpart Liz Smith there was no justification for increasing ministerial powers over higher education and the Liberal Democrats’ Tavish Scott accused the SNP of pursuing “centralisation, centralisation, centralisation.”

  • Keith Aitken
    Keith Aitken

    covers Scottish affairs for Public Finance from Edinburgh. He was formerly economics editor and chief leader writer on The Scotsman and now has a busy freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and event chair.

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