The University of Cambridge and Universities UK have warned the government that aspects of its plans to create a powerful university regulator in England amount to an “unprecedented extension of powers” and “harmful incursion by government”.
The strong criticisms of key sections of the UK government’s Higher Education and Research Bill – centring on far-reaching new powers to be given to a new Office for Students in England – came in written evidence to a parliamentary committee that last week began work on scrutinising the legislation.
UUK – which represents universities across the UK – welcomes the bill in its written evidence, but notes that the legislation “creates a number of new powers to be granted to the secretary of state or the Office for Students which are not currently held by the secretary of state or the Higher Education Funding Council for England”.
It says the bill “unhelpfully elides quality and standards” and in some places “gives the secretary of state powers over the sector at a course level”.
“This approach is directly opposed to the current legal situation, and could represent a significant and harmful incursion by government into the running of independent institutions which make up a world-leading sector,” UUK adds.
It also says that government plans in the bill to make it quicker and easier for new private providers to gain degree-awarding powers and university status “could undermine trust in the higher education sector, as well as compromise its integrity”.
UUK, which proposes revisions to the bill in all the areas where it raises concerns, says that powers for the secretary of state to frame guidance to the OfS “by reference to particular courses” could “represent an unprecedented breach of the autonomy of institutions”.
Cambridge’s written evidence, like UUK’s, highlights Section 13 of the bill, which states that an institution’s registration as a provider may include “a condition relating to the quality of, or the standards applied to, the higher education provided by the provider (including requiring the quality to be of a particular level or particular standards to be applied)”.
Cambridge says: “The proposal for the OfS to make arrangements for the assessment of standards is an unprecedented extension of powers and contradicts a cornerstone of the UK higher education sector, namely that providers with degree awarding powers are responsible, as autonomous institutions, for the standard of their awards”.
The university also objects to powers for the OfS to revoke an institution’s degree-awarding powers or university title, even when granted by Royal Charter. “These sections effectively grant the OfS the competence to revoke parts of primary legislation and Royal Charters, without full parliamentary scrutiny,” says Cambridge.
The Russell Group of large research-intensive universities says in its written evidence: “Maintaining academic freedom and institutional autonomy are critical as these are paramount to the ongoing success of our universities.
"These issues arise in a number of clauses around standards, authorisations in relation to university title and degree awarding powers and in how the new Office for Students (OfS) may exercise its regulatory powers.”
Sir Alan Langlands, the University of Leeds vice-chancellor and former chief executive of Hefce, which would become the OfS under the proposals, told MPs when he appeared before the same committee that the OfS, which will oversee teaching, and UK Research and Innovation, which will oversee research, must have “equivalence”.
Sir Alan said he was concerned that the “tone” of the bill suggested that the government “perhaps was going to be more directive in relation to the OfS than it was to UKRI. I think that is fundamentally wrong".
Attempts by backbench Labour MP Wes Streeting to secure student representation on the OfS board were thwarted by Conservative opposition at the committee, but he plans to maintain his fight to amend the legislation.