Academic freedom is a principle with which few would disagree. The freedom to interrogate, discover and learn upholds the UK’s prosperity and delivers breakthroughs that can change the way we live and work. Nowhere is this principle more revered and more vital than in universities, which have stood the test of time and become world leaders in large part due to their independence and autonomy.
As I stood in the gallery of the House of Lords last week, listening to the seven and a half hours of debate and discussion for the second reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill, the value that the sector places on academic freedom and institutional autonomy became clearer than ever. There is no disagreement with government on this crucial point. These values must remain paramount if universities are to remain engines of scientific discovery, bastions of free speech and educators of the workforce of tomorrow.
That is why at the heart of the bill is a commitment not only to protect institutional autonomy and academic freedom, but to go further and enshrine these values in legislation so that they are under no doubt. Indeed, there are provisions in our reforms to create protections that, until now, simply have not existed.
Take the new regulator for the sector, the Office for Students, for example. This will be a body at arm’s length from government, similar to the situation with the existing Higher Education Funding Council for England. It will have no powers to interfere with the content of courses or what universities teach, and for the first time we are legislating for explicit restrictions governing the ways in which the secretary of state may influence the regulator. This will mean universities will be free to make their own decisions, without interference, on the composition of their governing bodies, the content of their courses, the manner in which courses are taught, their admissions of students and their appointment of academic staff.
These are the things that our universities know exactly how to do and it is only right that these freedoms are protected. And we are going further, by handing back trust to providers with proven high quality, whether old or new. Why should we, as we do now, ask universities rated in the top 10 in the world to submit thousands of documents to a regulator every six years, or impose student number controls on a university when it comes top for student satisfaction? By operating a smarter, genuinely risk-based approach to regulation, the OfS will give universities the freedom and autonomy they need to operate.
To remove any doubt, at the Report stage of the bill’s passage through the House of Commons, I not only clarified in the bill that the government will not have the ability to tell institutions – via the OfS – to prohibit or require the provision of particular courses, I also set in place procedures to formalise co-regulation through the designation of an independent body to assess quality. As I said in committee in the Commons, standards will continue to be owned and defined by the sector, as set out in the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications, which are part of the sector’s Quality Code.
We also know that the autonomy of the UK research base is key to its success. We remain committed to the Haldane principle, as described by David Willetts, the former minister for universities and science, in 2010, which sets out that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review. The structure and design of the new strategic research and innovation funding body we are creating, UK Research and Innovation, cements this principle at its heart. UKRI will be established as an arm’s-length body, independent of government. And the councils that operate within it, such as the research councils, will continue to have autonomy within their area of expertise.
We are also providing legal protection for the dual-support system of research funding in England for the first time through the balanced funding principle. Indeed, this goes beyond traditional dual support in ensuring not only that there must be two streams of funding but that their quantum must be reasonably balanced.
This is a bill that goes further than respecting autonomy – it enshrines it. And it does so while removing a regulatory system that was built for a bygone era, creating a framework that levels the playing field and maximises the benefits of the UK’s great higher education sector.
Jo Johnson is the UK’s minister for universities, science, research and innovation.