The UK government’s higher education bill has been criticised by peers as a “juggernaut” that will override universities’ autonomy and willingness “to speak truth to power”, with Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and crossbench figures all joining the attack.
Sixty-nine peers – many with current or former senior roles in universities – spoke during the Higher Education and Research Bill’s second reading in the House of Lords on 6 December.
Many argued that the bill would give too much power to the government and to the new English regulator, the Office for Students. The OfS will have the power to strip universities of degree-awarding status and university title, even when granted by Royal Charter.
Peers also criticised plans to make it easier and quicker for new private and for-profit providers to gain degree-awarding powers, as well as plans for the teaching excellence framework to rate universities as “gold”, “silver” or “bronze” and the folding of the seven research councils into a single UK Research and Innovation body.
Lord Waldegrave, a former Conservative Cabinet minister who is soon to be installed as University of Reading chancellor, called the legislation “a juggernaut” and “a disappointing bill from a Conservative government”.
He said: “Arguably, it is the formal end of the delicate structure of autonomy under Royal Charters, which goes a long way back in our history.”
The Tory peer said the bill would move the sector “towards the sort of state governance structures that produce depressingly second-rate systems in, for example, France or Italy”.
Lord Willetts, a Conservative peer who was universities and science minister until 2014, backed the bill’s shift “to an open and transparent regulatory model”, but said peers had raised “legitimate concerns”.
He added: “Perhaps the biggest is about the autonomy of our universities. Some of the earlier government documents could have been read by some as implying that universities were a kind of poorly performing part of the public sector that needed a bit of a doing over.”
He continued: “I do not believe that it is the government’s intention to draw universities into their ambit, and I hope that the bill can be amended further to make that clear.”
Lord Mandelson, a Labour peer, former business secretary and now chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, said the government “must guard against lower entry standards for new challenger institutions, reducing the overall quality of Britain’s university offer. A ‘stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap’ approach will be hugely retrograde.”
Baroness Wolf, a crossbench peer who is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King’s College London and who carried out a review of vocational education for the Conservative-led coalition government in 2011, said the bill “proposes a dramatic change in how government relates to our universities…for the worse”.
She said the legislation “will have a knock-on effect on institutional autonomy and critical thought and inquiry, and it will corrode the willingness of universities to speak truth to power”.
The powers created in the bill “may well be abused by governments in the not-so-distant future”, Baroness Wolf argued.
Peers sent the bill forward to a committee of the whole house and are likely to try to amend the bill significantly. No dates have yet been set for that stage.
Viscount Younger, the government’s higher education spokesman in the Lords, said the bill was much needed to remedy a regulatory system that is “complex, fragmented and out of date”.