Bill faces rough ride

December 5, 1997

THE government's new Teaching and Higher Education Bill was this week denounced as the most Draconian attack on university autonomy this century.

Legal experts agree that the bill, published last Thursday and due to receive its second reading in the House of Lords next Thursday, places an intolerable degree of power in the hands of the education secretary to interfere in university affairs.

The bill is designed ostensibly to enable the introduction of the new student loans system and tuition fees from next year. It is also intended to prevent universities charging top-up fees in excess of the maximum Pounds 1,000 a year for tuition costs. It would enable the funding councils to claw back money from universities.

Academic lawyers, historians and opposition politicians say that the catch-all nature of the bill's clauses confers highly prescriptive powers on the secretary of state that potentially go far beyond what is necessary to rule out top-up fees. Others, particularly the National Union of Students and the Liberal Democrats, are less concerned with any possible loss of autonomy and more worried by questions of social equity.

Most experts agree, however, that the bill strikes at the heart of university autonomy, implicit in many royal charters and statutes.

Graham Zellick, professor of law and vice chancellor of the University of London, said: "It gives alarming and unprecedented powers to the secretary of state. These clauses would deny universities the right to fund particular courses for particular students in the way they wish. The governing body loses its freedom."

At a press conference on the bill, education secretary David Blunkett said: "We are not interfering with universities' freedom. They have a choice. We are custodians of public funds and we have a right to deal with these public funds in a way that delivers equality and fairness. This is not a threat to institutional or academic freedom of any sort."

The bill effectively negates provisions in the 1992 Act that had prevented the secretary of state from interfering in individual institutions or on academic matters.

Critics say that the bill may be the result of poor drafting rather than any sinister attempt by the government to wrest control of the university sector. But Earl Russell, professor of history at King's College, London, thinks that it is a deliberate attempt to reverse protective amendments in the 1992 Act that were secured by peers.

Peers are likely to prove a major stumbling block. Tory politicians in the Commons will also oppose the bill.

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