Autonomy eroded by the long arm of the state

May 28, 1999

Government intervention is becoming a threat to academic freedom, writes Stephen Court

June 4 is an unhappy day for anniversaries. It marks ten years since the Chinese government's brutal clampdown on pro-democracy demonstrators - many of whom were students - in Tiananmen Square.

It also marks a year since the Serbian government's university law made all senior university staff appointments subject to direct government approval.

In turn those appointees have wide powers over academic staff under them, including where and what they teach. In the words of a professor of law at Belgrade University - "autonomy at the university is definitely over".

The plight of university staff in former Yugoslavia underlines the vital role of institutional autonomy in preserving academic freedom, by keeping the state at arm's length from higher education. It serves as a warning to more fortunate academics elsewhere about the value and vulnerability of their freedom. And it also makes one reflect about the health of university autonomy in this country.

Along with diversity, institutional autonomy is one of the defining principles of higher education in the UK. Our universities, with their different histories, strengths and traditions, are self-governing. But recent developments in higher education - although nothing on the scale of Serbia - are subtly eroding that autonomy.

Britain's national higher education funding councils are meant to be a buffer between the state and academe. It is the job of the councils to decide what proportion of recurrent central government funding to allocate to each institution. Beyond that, it is up to the institution how that money is distributed.

But government is attaching a growing list of expectations to the way it wants the funding councils to use that money. The most recent funding allocation letter from the Department for Education and Employment to the Higher Education Funding Council for England reads like Admiral Nelson's "England expects ..." message.

David Blunkett, the secretary of state for education and employment, expects institutions in England to "take effective measures" to widen access to under-represented social groups and to play a key role in lifelong learning. Institutions are to achieve the government's training targets. Student numbers are to be expanded and contracted according to the government's priorities. Institutions are to give priority to the regeneration of the local or regional economy, and to the needs of industry and commerce. The research assessment exercise is to be opened to assessors from outside higher education institutions. Institutions are expected to follow public sector pay policy. And so on.

While many of the government's aims are acceptable to institutions, the tone is increasingly prescriptive - and with financial strings attached, institutions will think twice before taking a defiant line over government policy.

Apart from the RAE, closer government control over research is also exercised through projects funded by the research councils or sponsored by government departments, both tied to government objectives. Academics are increasingly encouraged to conduct research linked to improving the economy and it is not unknown for industrial sponsors - and government departments - to prevent publication of research that comes up with the wrong answers.

Benchmarks for measuring the standards of bachelors' degrees are being developed on a subject-by-subject basis by the Quality Assurance Agency, which aims to have a national system running by next year. Although a national curriculum is not yet being proposed, institutional autonomy over course content is likely to be limited by these measures. Proposals being developed for membership of the national Institute for Learning and Teaching in higher education are likely to further add to the external standardisations affecting teaching. Meanwhile, political devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, including control of education, could also result in an increasingly hands-on approach by politicians in their own backyards.

Any defence of autonomy needs to be balanced by the importance of institutions being accountable for their public funding. Many of the government's aims for the sector are laudable. But the temptation for politicians and administrators is to use funding and stakeholder politics to steamroll a diverse sector into compliance. Serbia is a reminder that the health and credibility of higher education depends on governments allowing universities the breathing space that autonomy allows.

Stephen Court is senior research officer at the Association of University Teachers.

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