The government wants to pass a law to have more control over higher education

The government is planning to make the biggest reform in the UK’s university history. The draft of the UK Higher Education and Research Bill includes some major reforms, including the creation of a fast-track to enact private companies to set up universities and the establishment of a mechanism that links teaching quality with tuition fees. It also opens the door to political interference in scientific research.

While the government sees the bill as a way of  supporting its “mission to boost social mobility, life chances and opportunity for all”, the higher education and scientific communities see things differently.

Startup universities

With the intention of “opening up the sector”, in the words of newly appointed education secretary Justine Greening, the new bill will allow new approved providers to graduate their students under their own degrees within two years, and full university status after six years, in what was previously a decades-long process.

While the educational publishing group Pearson has already stated its intention of setting up its own university, other giants such as Google and Apple could follow.

Sorana Vierus, from the National Unions of Students (NUS), warns of the risks:

My concern is that these institutions could be short lived and that students who have been promised the opportunity of getting a degree could end up in institutions that end up folding because they are a business enterprise – an experiment

The university status will be granted by a newly created Office for Students (OfS), which will replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England.  The OfS will also be responsible for awarding grants and will act as a regulator, which according to Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education, will produce a “blatant” conflict of interests:

Read on...

How can a regulator and the supposed protector of students’ interests, OfS’s prime role, also be a funder of institutions?

Fees and quality

One of the most controversial issues of the bill is the establishment of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The TEF will assess different aspects of teaching quality and will allow universities that meet the government’s targets to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation. The government’s intention is that, through financial incentives and the prospect of improved reputation, providers will be encouraged to raise standards.

But many suspect that the real intention behind the plan is to act as a financial leash to control universities more effectively. Labour’s Gordon Marsden has called the TEF a “Trojan horse for removing the fee cap”, adding that the bill  “is obsessed with a toxic combination of market- and competition-driven ideology”. And the NUS believes that TEF could serve as a means to “financially discipline institutions that fail to ‘perform’ according to very limited criteria”.

The NUS, together with the University and College Union, has called for a national demonstration on 19 November to protest against cuts and raising fees.

Political interference

The current system guarantees that scientists have independence to chose what to work on. This independence is granted by the royal charters, a centuries-old legal instrument which ensures that research activities are protected from political interference. The seven research councils, as well as many universities, are governed by these royal charters.

However, if the new bill is passed, royal charters will become useless. In the case of the research councils, they will be dissolved to be replaced by a new body called UK Research and Innovation, which will not have a royal charter. As for universities, the creation of the new Office for Students will de facto override the royal charters.

The prestigious journal Nature, in its 4 October editorial, called this the “biggest shake-up in the sector for more than a generation”, and urged researchers to speak up against it. The text ends with an unambiguous word of caution:

Make no mistake. Britain’s first all-Conservative government in 20 years sees science and higher education as vestiges of the big state. If its proposals become law, the government will upend globally accepted norms that protect independence and self-determination in science and higher education.

Professor Peter Scott also warns of the consequences of giving too much power to the government over universities:

All universities, not just dodgy for-profit colleges, will in effect “serve at the pleasure” of politicians, prey to all kinds of political pressure and buffeted by every passing ideological whim.

From bill to law

The bill, presented to parliament by the government, was given its first reading to the House of the Commons last May in a formal stage that did not include any debate over its contents. The second reading, which took place on 19 July, included a debate and a vote, where the bill was allowed to pass to the next stage, with 294 votes to 258. Now it is being scrutinised by the Public Bill Committee, which will then report back to the House of the Commons on 13 October. From there, after a third reading, the bill will follow its journey into the House of the Commons where eventually it will make its way into law.

The independence of higher education is on the line here. If collective action is not taken, and this move goes unchallenged, the future of research in this country could take a turn for the worse.

Get Involved!

– Read other Canary articles about government education policies here.

– Write to your MP to tell them what you think about the government’s plans for the education system.

– Follow 999 Call 4 Education on Twitter.

Featured image via Ilee_wu/Flickr

We need your help to keep speaking the truth

Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.

Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.

We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.

In return, you get:

* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop

Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.

With your help we can continue:

* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do

We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?

The Canary Support us

Comments are closed