The Jo Johnson definition of a university

The definition of a university called for by the Lords never really materialised, writes Gill Evans

May 8, 2017
Girl looking over dictionary

On 9 January, a packed House of Lords voted through an amendment stating that the Higher Education and Research Bill (now Act) should include a definition of the role of universities. 

It was to go at the beginning of the bill, and said: 

(1) UK universities are autonomous institutions and must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech. (2) UK universities must ensure that they promote freedom of thought and expression, and freedom from discrimination. (3) UK universities must provide an extensive range of high quality academic subjects delivered by excellent teaching, supported by scholarship and research, through courses which enhance the ability of students to learn throughout their lives. (4) UK universities must make a contribution to society through the pursuit, dissemination, and application of knowledge and expertise locally, nationally and internationally; and through partnerships with business, charitable foundations, and other organisations, including other colleges and universities. (5) UK universities must be free to act as critics of government and the conscience of society. 

The Lords recognised that it was not perfect, but they were strongly of the opinion that there ought to be a definition of a university in the bill.  

The issue had been raised by the Commons Committee on 15 September. Roberta Blackman-Woods MP had asked whether the minister for higher education, Jo Johnson, could “reassure” the committee “that no institution will be able to call itself a university when it clearly is not one”? Mr Johnson read a prepared answer, beginning with the key points in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992: 

At its most literal, a university can be described as a provider of predominantly higher education that has got degree-awarding powers and has been given the right to use the university title. 

He added a broader definition. A university is, he said, an “institution that brings together a body of scholars to form a cohesive and self-critical academic community”.  

This wording was derived from the requirements for the granting of degree-awarding powers in England and Wales as framed in 1999, slightly adjusted in 2004, and updated in 2012 and 2015. It states that the applicant organisation should be able to demonstrate that it has a “well founded, cohesive and self-critical academic community that demonstrates firm guardianship of its standards”.

He then added the requirement that a university be “a place where students are developing higher analytical capacities – critical thinking, curiosity about the world and higher levels of abstract capacity in their thinking”.

He did not mention the “social goods” the Lords had put into their own definition, although the Commons Committee had pressed pretty hard for similar requirements.

When the bill arrived at the “wash-up” stage on 26 April, with Parliament’s dissolution imminent, Johnson turned his fire in the Commons on the Lords’ amendment. He repeated his earlier definition almost word for word, making a few additions. The “body of scholars” was specifically “to provide excellent learning opportunities for people”. 

“We expect teaching at such an institution to be informed by a combination of research, scholarship and professional practice.” The way students were taught distinguished a university from a school. He argued that “diversity” of provision required “in particular, small and specialist providers” and no requirement for universities to be able to award research degrees. 

The next day’s ping-pong rushed the bill back to the Lords. There it fell to Viscount Younger of Leckie to recite “the definition of a university made by my honourable friend the minister in the other place”, following closely his wording of the previous day.

The Lords’ amendment was never discussed again in either House, and the team writing the script for Johnson and Younger did not even attempt to combine the points in the definition they wrote with the ones for which the Lords had voted.

So there is still no comprehensive definition of a university in English law after all. That looks pretty dangerous to me when I look back over the hungry “providers” Johnson has mentioned with such enthusiastic approval over recent months. It would have been good to see those Post-it notes put together into something of more enduring value, and more capable of guarding against the degradation of the word “university”.

Gill R. Evans is emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.

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