The boardroom of the Scottish Funding Council after they've all declared their interest?
It comes as no surprise to learn that the chair of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) – the public body that dishes out the dosh to our higher and further education institutions – is that tireless worker for the public good, Professor Alice Brown.
I can testify to her diplomatic skills. She once persuaded me to share a platform with Shami Chakrabarti, a challenging assignment at any time. So much so that whenever I think of Dame Shami (as we must now learn to call her) as an ornament of Jezza's shadow cabinet, I feel a pang of sorrow for our prime minister in waiting. Yet, Professor Alice prevailed upon me to do it, qualifying her as a person of extraordinary qualities.
I note with a purr of approval that she is paid £47,424 a year for her chairing duties at SFC. It sounds a lot for a part-time commitment, but I reckon she is worth every penny. Indeed, having had a look at the budget she has at her disposal, I must remember to recommend her for a peerage. It is – pause for deep intake of breath – £1.5 billion a year. Let me see. Isn't that half a billion more than the whole of Northern Ireland is getting as a result of the infamous bung?
Assisting her in this important work, Professor Alice has 13 non-execs, each on £11,789 per year. With three of them I have, as they say, no problem. Paul McKelvie runs the Scottish end of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. Keith Nicholson is a consultant in cyber security among other things. Lorraine McMillan is chief executive of East Renfrewshire Council and insists that her fees are paid directly to her employer – an admirable example that many others in Scottish quangoland should follow.
Why do I approve of them? For a very simple reason: none of them appears to have any connection with client organisations of the Scottish Funding Council. They are entirely independent of vested interests. They carry no baggage. They may speak – and evaluate applications – unencumbered by association.
Six of the others are okay-ish. Caroline Stuart, a 'digital business transformation consultant' – say again? – serves on the court of Glasgow Caledonian University, one of SFC's clients. Marlene Wood, a chartered accountant, was until recently chair of the audit committee of the University of the Highlands and Islands, another of SFC's clients. The versatile Albert Rodger doubles as emeritus professor of civil engineeering at Aberdeen University and visiting professor at Strathclyde University, two more SFC clients, while Robin Crawford, a chartered accountant, is a former member of the Strathclyde University court. Douglas Mundie, a business consultant, spent 12 years on the court of St Andrews University, yet another beneficiary of SFC's largesse. And let us not forget the redoubtable Maggie Kinloch, a former deputy principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (fancy upgrade for the old college of music and drama). It too is a client of SFC.
There is no suggestion that any of these good people are biased in favour of their own institutions. Furthermore (I'm all for a furthermore before the holidays) some would argue that such old hands bring valuable experience to the deliberations of the national funding agency. Still, it all feels a bit cosy and inter-connected, in the way of so many public appointments in Scotland. And must we have quite
so many friends of the sector on board? How intellectually bracing is that?
So far I have accounted for nine of Professor Alice's colleagues. Let's have a look at who's left.
Paul Little is principal and chief executive of the City of Glasgow College, a client of SFC. Audrey Cumberford is principal and chief executive of West College Scotland, a client of SFC. Veena O'Halloran is 'Director of Student Experience and Enhancement Services' at Strathclyde University, and only Dr O'Halloran can tell us what that means. Finally and inescapably, we have Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, who needs no introduction to readers of the Scottish Review. (I was amused by a story in a local newspaper entitled 'Knighthood for Bearsden professor', which irresistibly brought to mind the legendary headline over the Press & Journal's account of the Titanic disaster, 'Aberdeen man drowns at sea'.)
It pains me to have to record that the Bearsden professor was the worst attender at SFC meetings in the last financial year. Pains me because it would be nice to be able to say something positive about Sir Anton. But, as ever, I am bound by an obligation to the facts. He managed along to only six of the nine council meetings, only two of the four meetings of the skills committee, only one of the four meetings of the finance committee, and only one of the two meetings of the remuneration committee, an attendance record of 52.6% for his pay of £11,789. Petty cash, admittedly, on top of the £322,000 he receives as principal of yon uni.
To summarise: of the 13 persons assisting Professor Alice, three are in charge of client organisations – shouldn't that rule them out automatically? – while one is a senior staffer at a client organisation, and six have a close connection, past or present, with client organisations. And let us not forget Professor Alice herself. Though, like me, she was sensible enough to abandon the Scottish education system at the age of 15, unlike me she re-entered it in later life and ended up as professor of politics at Edinburgh University. Ho hum, another client organisation of SFC.
What happens when the merits of the many institutions represented on the Scottish Funding Council come to be considered for a share of that £1.5 billion kitty? One supposes that, in the interests of sound governance and to avoid any awkwardness or hint of partiality, Professor Alice has to ask them to leave the room. Maybe she has to ask herself to leave the room. Maybe she even has to ask the great Anton Muscatelli to leave the room. It is conceivable that there are occasions when so many people are obliged to vacate the premises having 'declared their interest' that the three indies have the shortbread biccies all to themselves.
Looking for an example of how public affairs are organised in Scotland, public appointments made, colossal sums of public money distributed? You've just had it, silly.