UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to force universities to set up schools risks a shift towards greater government “control” over higher education and shows Ms May's “different conception of university autonomy”, according to observers.
The UK government announced plans on 9 September that would require English universities to establish a new school or sponsor an existing “underperforming” school as a condition of being allowed to charge fees above the basic level, currently set at £6,000.
The plans, set out in a speech by the prime minister pledging the expansion of selective school education, reinforce the impression that she is prepared to explicitly direct universities over policy and could be seen as amounting to a further major administrative burden for them. The creation of new grammar schools could also have major implications for university admissions.
Nick Timothy, Ms May’s joint chief of staff, was an advocate of universities setting up schools as director of the New-Schools Network, the organisation that promotes the growth of free schools.
During his time in that post, in the year until Ms May’s appointment as prime minister in July 2016, Mr Timothy said: “If Oxbridge and top universities are serious about taking on more pupils from poor backgrounds, they need to join the University of Birmingham in setting up excellent new free schools to make sure schools are giving children the right opportunities to access university.”
Birmingham’s free school – opened in 2015 and comprising a secondary school and sixth form college – was cited by Ms May as a positive example in her speech.
Ms May, who said the balance had shifted too far towards bursaries in university access spending, announced that the government “will reform university fair access requirements and say that universities should actively strengthen state school attainment – by sponsoring a state school or setting up a new free school".
She added that over time this would be extended "to the sponsorship or establishment of more than one school, so that in the future we see our universities sponsoring thriving school chains in every town and city in the country".
Jonathan Simons, head of the education unit at the Policy Exchange thinktank, a major influence on Conservative education policy in recent years, said: “The prime minister is right to say that universities should play a greater role in earlier education – and also right to say that a lot of them are spending considerable sums of money, often to little effect.
"But the evidence on university sponsorship of schools shows a mixed picture – and some notable failures.
"This is also an indication – which not all universities will welcome – about how being part of a unified Department for Education means a temptation towards greater Whitehall control over their funding and activities," he added, referring to Ms May's decision to bring universities back into the DfE from the business department.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the announcement indicates that Ms May “has a different conception of university autonomy than most of her predecessors”. He added that “one might also argue it's a logical consequence of plonking HE policy back in the Department for Education”.
He also said it may be “quite hard to justify higher student fees (and higher student debt) in order to subsidise a new school”.
Michael Roden, the University of Birmingham School’s principal, said pupils there “benefit from a brand new building, an extended school day, enrichment built in to the timetable, and of course, links with the world-class facilities and resources at the University of Birmingham”.
He said that the free school model “has enabled us to be innovative with our admissions policy, encouraging social mobility”, with the latest intake of pupils drawn from 63 different primary schools across the whole city and with “30 different ethnic groups” represented.
For 2016 entry it was "one of the most oversubscribed schools in the city”, Mr Roden said, describing the school as “committed to high-quality academic and character education”.
John Howson, honorary Norham fellow in the department of education at the University of Oxford, said that if the overall national schools system were to be a “coherent” one, “it might well be sensible to say each university would cooperate in [an existing] multi-academy trust”, which would mitigate against “the risks of setting up a new school”.
He argued that with increasing numbers of new schools and types of school being established “the risk is we have an increasingly incoherent schools system”, suggesting that this undermines the promise that “every single child has the best possible quality education provided for them”.