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Peers will fight for chartered universities

The UK government’s existing proposal to enable the Office for Students to override universities’ royal charters is unlikely to survive into the final higher education and research act, Research Fortnight has learned.

Under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, a body called the Privy Council is responsible for approving the use of the word “university” in the title of a higher education institution, and to administer the university royal charters that set out the institution’s overall constitution and statutes.

The Privy Council consists mostly of parliamentarians, headed by the Queen. It was set up to advise the head of state and it predates parliament. One of its roles today is to enable professional bodies such as the Royal Society to remain autonomous from government, even if they are publicly funded. This happens through a royal charter.

Under the higher education and research bill, an Office for Students, answerable to the government, would decide which institutions qualify as universities, overriding existing royal charters and acts of parliament. More than 50 UK universities set up before 1992 are governed by royal charters.

Several peers, including university chancellors, plan to amend this proposal substantially when the bill is debated in the House of Lords—which could happen around Christmas.

Individual members of the Privy Council are aware that the government’s intention to transfer the obligations of chartered universities to the OfS could “open a can of worms”. However, as the Privy Council cannot become involved in the legislative process, any changes to the draft legislation would have to come from amendments via the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

According to one historian of the Privy Council, the government’s proposal will not make it into the final legislation. David Rogers, author of By Royal Appointment: Tales from the Privy Council—the unknown arm of government, told Research Fortnight that several members of the Privy Council disliked the proposal.

Rogers—who in the 1980s worked with William Whitelaw, former deputy prime minister and lord president of the Privy Council—said that once Buckingham Palace is informed of the proposed changes, the Queen could be advised to raise the topic at her weekly meeting with prime minister Theresa May.

“If the proposal to revoke royal charters gets through both Houses of Parliament, then the Privy Council has no option but to present it to the Queen for her signature. She might not be amused.” Rogers said. “If it is true that Theresa May has authorised a government minister to tell institutions holding a royal charter that the title is meaningless and may be revoked, it certainly presents a new topic for discussion at the prime minister’s weekly meeting with the Queen.”

A Buckingham Palace spokesman declined to comment in response to a request from Research Fortnight.

Richard Black, pro-director for research and enterprise at the School of Oriental and African Studies, said that the changes are not needed. “To simplify the rules for approval of universities’ constitutions should not require us to be potentially subject to the will of a minister of closing a university down. There must be a halfway house between simplifying the rules and giving full authority to the minister of a future government to interfere in university affairs.”

The government is to meet opposition and crossbench peers on 9 November to try to reach a compromise on the proposals. University vice-chancellors have so far kept a low profile. There is a desire among some not to antagonise the government at a time when institutions are seeking permission to raise tuition fees.

But Rogers said he detected genuine concern. “Every chancellor and vice-chancellor I have talked to feels that a royal charter gives their university real status, especially internationally, and upholds the long-standing tradition of keeping their research and teaching at an arm’s length from the government of the day,” Roger said. “I feel universities minister Jo Johnson has misread the mood in higher education.”

This article also appeared on the cover of Research Fortnight under the headline "Johnson misreads mood on royal charters".