How easy should it be to open a university?

Mike Ratcliffe looks at why institutions have traditionally had to serve an ‘apprenticeship’, ahead of Green Paper set to change the rules

November 4, 2015
Grand opening

How easy should it be to open a university? We have had several articles in the past few days espousing the logic that the whole sector would be better if the government released new providers from the anti-competitive business of having to prove that they can run proper courses before being allowed to award degrees.  

We’ve had A. C. Grayling telling us that the regulatory regime is Byzantine and Jonathan Simons complaining about the lack of a level playing field. Paul Greatrix does a great job in imagining how you can cut through this.

The aspect that is apparently the problem is the notion that before a body can award degrees, it must have a proven track record before it is given that right by the Privy Council. This is an exercise of a piece of Crown prerogative which pre-dates every other piece of university regulation, which, apart from a few select examples, has required an apprenticeship.

Looking at the history, the admission of people to degrees was something that was held to be vested in the Sovereign or the Papacy.

Medieval universities made sure by getting permission from both – the University of Glasgow has a great example of the Papal Bull with Pope Nicholas V’s fervent desire: “that the said city may be adorned with the gifts of the sciences, so that she may produce men distinguished for ripeness of judgement, crowned with the ornaments of virtue and erudite with the dignities of the various faculties and that there may be an overflowing fountain of the sciences, out of whose fullness all that desire to be imbued with the lessons of knowledge may drink.”

Obviously, writing to the Pope ceased to be an option for the English a while ago (although the Archbishop of Canterbury retains his own special degree-awarding powers as a vestige of that authority).  

For post-Reformation Britain an apprenticeship, in some cases lasting over 50 years, become the dominant model.

This precedent was broken in 1948 when University College Staffordshire sought to have a new curriculum, which it couldn’t fit to London’s external degrees, and obtained the right to a new kind of sponsorship, supported by three other universities. This paved the way for the “new universities” that were given degree awarding powers from the outset, supported by an academic advisory council. After that we returned to apprenticeships – CNAA or validating universities.

If we are serious about the controlled reputational range of British universities then we need to ensure that our qualifications adhere both to the valid assessment of standards and to an appropriateness of curriculum. That’s what the post-Dearing HE system has given us.  

For all the references to Robbins, it is the academic infrastructure of Dearing that has seen us through expansion of the sector in a good state.    

The Green Paper will, no doubt, pick away at many of the parts of that infrastructure – but a crucial part will be the way that new providers are brought into the reputational range of the whole sector.  

Sadly there are too many providers who opted for the HND route who have failed to adhere to the standards we would want – certainly in comparison with those who have validated or franchised provision from universities. And what was regulating those providers? The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills itself.

Nearly all our universities have been through an apprenticeship and it has given us the diverse sector we have. Naturally, all those universities chafed at the restrictions at some time or other, but it has worked – maybe out of fear of the sorcerer (even if vice-chancellors no longer look like that).  

Let’s see what robust mechanisms the government has in store…

Mike Ratcliffe is a career university administrator, currently interim academic registrar at the University of Bedfordshire (whose views are not expressed here). This post originally appeared on his blog, More Means Better.

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