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Power grab

The higher education and research bill proposes a dramatic change in the government’s relationship with institutions.

Broad principles rather than specifics will be the focus of the second reading of the higher education and research bill in the House of Lords on 6 December. And, for me, the main principle is whether it should change the entire dynamics of the relationship between universities and government.

The bill proposes major new powers for individual secretaries of state and for the new quango which the legislation creates. There is a fundamental shift in the relationships between universities, ministers, parliament and the crown. The government’s response to concerns about the impact on academic freedom and institutional autonomy has so far been very limited. It offered just one small amendment: it removed the potential for ministerial interventions at individual course level.

That is welcome but does not go nearly far enough. The bill’s changes in the way degree awarding powers are given, in validation arrangements, and in giving a quango powers to overrule university statutes and royal charters will all have knock-on effects for institutional autonomy and the willingness of universities to speak truth to power.

It feels as though England is changing the whole structure of governance and reducing the substantive independence of universities in really major ways that have not been thought through properly. Most worryingly, the government does not seem to have taken on board the fact that it is increasing dramatically the power of future governments, should they choose, to put pressure on individual institutions.

I’m not suggesting the current government is proposing to do that. But powers that exist will be used and can be abused, and even if they are not abused by this government, then they may be by governments in the future. Far reaching changes in governance, once implemented, are very hard to reverse. British universities have been independent, and have been successful and globally admired because of that independence. Indeed, it is one of the glories of the system that, unlike in many other countries, our universities are not subject to direct ministerial or governmental command.

The proposals in the bill also concentrate a huge range of powers–some old, some new–in a single institution. This is not simply tidying up round the edges. It is creating a huge new bureaucracy, with no division of powers–and one which ministers, as they come and go, will struggle to control.

And it will be expensive. More bureaucratic and regulatory activity and more bureaucrats will cost money, and there will be a lot more internal activity, which will have to be paid for as well. Universities will be expected to fund the Office for Students and, since tuition fees are a major source of income to universities in England, ultimately the cost will be borne by students.

The bill went through the Commons almost unnoticed by many MPs, who seem not to have grasped how big a change is proposed. However, the fact that such an very large number of peers have signed up to speak on 6 December shows that, in the Lords, concerns run deep. A free country needs its higher education institutions to be free too. Amendments to this bill are vital and well worth fighting for.

Alison Wolf is a cross-bench peer and the Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King’s College London.