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Peers must blunt government’s attack on university autonomy

Faced with an arrogant and ham-fisted higher education and research bill, the Lords must do what it can to protect academic freedom, says Chris Patten.

My guess is that the universities and science minister Jo Johnson is one of the few in government who has read both Edmund Burke and John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. So he will, I am sure, understand the philosophical and practical arguments both for university autonomy and for retaining the link between teaching and research.

How then can he have allowed himself to be lumbered with the doubtlessly well-intentioned, but ultimately pretty miserable, higher education and research bill, which is about to be considered by the House of Lords?

There is an awful arrogance about Whitehall sometimes. We have, by general consent, the world’s second-best higher education system. It is far from perfect, with, for example, too little flexibility between pure academic work and technical and vocational training. Yet, given the lamentable funding record of governments of every stripe, its quality is little short of miraculous.

I am not sure that the way we govern ourselves in Britain would get a similar thumbs up these days. So why set about a root and branch reorganisation of university governance, particularly when we are told daily that the government cannot cope with all the demands being heaped on it, not least because of the “goodbye Europe” administrative overload?

It seems particularly ham-fisted to turn the academic world upside down when universities face so much turbulence and uncertainty in the wake of Brexit and the rhetoric surrounding immigration. Moreover, to give the impression that one goal is to inject a shot of entrepreneurial vim, so that universities can replicate the energy and outlook of—who shall we say, Philip Green?—seems unlikely to convince those who work in and study at our universities that ministers understand and care much about what they are doing.

This does not mean that universities should be immunised against change or competent management. Universities will change in the decades ahead. They may work in a variety of different ways with a greater spread of objectives. They should be left to explore their own mission and shape their own identity. Their integrity and autonomy should be preserved at all cost.

Facing a leap in the dark, universities are told to trust ministers and civil servants to behave properly. Johnson says that he has “no intention of telling universities how to do their jobs”. But the bill that he recommends we swallow gives the secretary of state greater power than ever to direct the course of research.

Ministers are required only to “have regard” for academic freedom. It will be the minister, not an academic, who makes appointments to our research councils. Should we take all this on trust? At the very least, the government should allow a thorough review of the bill’s effects three years or so after it is enacted, to provide an opportunity to change things that are not working.

Worst of all is the power given to the Office for Students to revoke the acts of parliament or royal charters that have established our universities. How can it be right to allow institutions, some of very ancient standing, to be abolished with only weak parliamentary scrutiny? Did Thomas Cromwell write this part of the bill?

In the area of research and innovation, I feel particularly strongly about preserving the system of dual support, under which the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the research councils fund infrastructure, resources and administrative support as well as grants for individual projects. The bill as it stands gives only a weak commitment to continue this source of funding; it could easily be thrown overboard in times of financial restraint, with which our universities are all too familiar.

There is much else besides that should ensure the bill is amended. The social sciences, for example, are absent from the list of research functions that should be supported. Finally—at least in my own list—there is the artificial divide between research and funding, though in practice the two go hand in hand. Think of university museums, or those laboratories that provide both service and teaching facilities. The bill needs to be clearer about the organisations and programmes that straddle this divide.

All this and much more will confuse and irritate our universities. If only some of the energy that has been thrown into engineering this upheaval had gone into finding solutions to the problems created by Brexit and our crazy immigration policy. Alas, we appear to be stuck with a bad bill which, perhaps, the House of Lords can marginally improve.

Chris Patten is chancellor of the University of Oxford, and a Conservative peer.