DfE ‘manifesto’ for English sector ‘sets path to legislation’

Interventionist stance of ‘restructuring regime’ prompts warning of ‘tragic’ erosion of university autonomy

July 20, 2020
The Port Isaac Cornwall lifeboat being dragged through the very narrow streets of the town at its launch.
Source: Getty
Fit for funding: universities seeking loans may need to refocus their strategies

The Department for Education’s “restructuring regime” for the English sector may set a path towards legislation on tertiary education and raises major concerns around university autonomy, according to policy experts.

On 16 July, the DfE outlined the conditions under which emergency loans could be granted to universities at risk of failure because of the pandemic.

Universities seeking such a loan must look at “refocusing provision on high-quality courses, defined as courses with strong learner outcomes (eg, low dropout rates and large proportions of graduates finding highly skilled employment)”, as well as consider efficiency measures such as institutional mergers, including with further education colleges.

“The principles set out in the Restructuring Regime represent a sound set of principles for all higher education providers and I would encourage all providers, whether or not they need to access the scheme, to carefully consider them as they develop their strategies for the future,” says the document’s foreword, written by education secretary Gavin Williamson.

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, said the restructuring regime document “definitely has the whiff of a Green or White Paper in the autumn. It would be odd to set out these broader priorities for HE and to just leave them in a technical restructuring note.”

That will raise the prospect of the aims set out in the restructuring regime document and by ministers in recent speeches – to reorient higher education, end university expansion and “rebalance” towards further education – being implemented via legislation.

Restricting access to student loans in higher education by setting a minimum grade threshold was an idea floated in the Augar review of post-18 education set up by Theresa May’s government. Putting that into practice would require legislation.

Sir David Bell, the University of Sunderland vice-chancellor and a former permanent secretary in the DfE, said that the restructuring document was “as close to an HE manifesto as we are likely to get ahead of a possible White Paper”.

“Any institution with an ounce of political ‘nous’ will be assessing itself against the priorities laid out here. Constitutionalists may want to argue whether this does, or does not, represent a threat to universities’ autonomy, but the drift of policy – and likely, too, funding – is very clear,” Sir David said.

Concerns about university autonomy are likely to be raised by the DfE’s direct interventionist stance across a range of issues, particularly in bringing together economic goals with hot-button issues on the cultural right. Among conditions for emergency loan funding, Mr Williamson mentions a need for universities to demonstrate “commitment to academic freedom and free speech as cornerstones of our liberal democracy” and for universities’ funding for student unions to avoid “subsidising niche activism and campaigns”.

David Green, the University of Worcester vice-chancellor, said that it would be “tragic if the pandemic eroded university autonomy”.

“Vigorous universities, independent and autonomous from the state, which promote a flourishing culture of freedom of speech and thought, democratic student representation and extensive engagement with city, region and society are cornerstone institutions of liberal democracies,” he said.

“It is also true that autonomous and independent institutions are much better at judging workforce needs, skills shortages and graduate opportunities in advanced economies than are governments.”

Sunderland’s Sir David said it was unclear how many institutions “will avail themselves of such ‘support’”.

“However, given the punitive nature of what is proposed, you would have to be running on fumes to seek such intervention,” he added.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ’Manifesto’ for England ‘sets path to legislation’

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Related articles

Reader's comments (2)

new
I cannot agree with this statement: “It is also true that autonomous and independent institutions are much better at judging workforce needs, skills shortages and graduate opportunities in advanced economies than are governments." If they were, how come we are in such a mess? How come most employers would not agree either. The.." autonomous and independent institutions" may be good at protecting their own interests but they have not been good at pleasing taxpayers or the public at large. Too much autonomy from publicly funded institutions with weak Government leads to unnecessary duplication, waste and inefficiency. A new balance is needed.
new
David Green says “Vigorous universities, independent and autonomous from the state, which promote a flourishing culture of freedom of speech and thought, democratic student representation and extensive engagement with city, region and society are cornerstone institutions of liberal democracies,” - Pity we have so few of them.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Sponsored