Leader: Freedom - but only over fees

Lord Browne's rhetoric is all about freeing universities, but his plans could result in 'a state-controlled and regulated industry'

October 21, 2010

The government will be "less involved" in higher education, we have been promised. There will be "less regulation". More trust will be placed in universities, which are to be handed "more say, more control".

In outlining the benefits of his proposals for the radical reform of English higher education, published last week, Lord Browne of Madingley repeatedly emphasised a core principle: the value of institutional autonomy.

Given that his review has heralded the massive withdrawal of public investment in university teaching in favour of private funding, such a commitment to institutional freedom may have been scant consolation to many, but it was a crucial point nevertheless.

Teaching quality will be raised, Lord Browne said, far more effectively by competition for students than by "any attempt at central planning". Managers fixated on box-ticking do not make world-class universities.

Although universities may soon be pressed into the free market, the review offers them the prospect of liberation from the state's stifling and costly yoke of accountability.

Or does it? Does Lord Browne's rhetoric match the reality set out in his report?

There are indeed new freedoms over tuition fees and student numbers (although they make the heads of some less prestigious institutions decidedly uncomfortable). In truth, however, they benefit only a few elite universities.

And other elements of the review amount to a sweeping set of "intrusive government controls", according to the Higher Education Policy Institute.

A particular concern is the proposal to create a single "mega-quango", the Higher Education Council, by merging the functions of four distinct bodies responsible for funding, quality, access and student complaints.

Hepi points out that incorporating the Quality Assurance Agency into the council would bring issues concerning standards - very much matters for institutional autonomy - "closer to government control". The HEC would also gain startling powers over some sacred tenets of freedom: it could set minimum "quality levels", establish minimum entry standards, determine what a university should spend on access and retention initiatives, and even shape the curriculum by deciding the minimum number of laboratory hours for applied science courses.

For more than a decade at the QAA, latterly as its chief executive before he retired this year, Peter Williams was never one to worry overmuch about the bureaucratic burden on universities. But plans for the HEC provoked from him a memorably damning comment: "Under these proposals, higher education would finally become a state-controlled and regulated industry."

If one of the sector's great bureaucrats is so alarmed, things must be really bad.

David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, was one of many to weigh in this week. He lamented the review's "great irony" - "the less money the taxpayer gives you, the more hoops you have to jump through".

Upon closer inspection, the Browne Review looks set to deliver an audacious double whammy: discarding the principle that higher education deserves strong state support while at the same time binding it under ever more intrusive state control.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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