Universities wary of European threat to autonomy, Lords inquiry hears

Universities in the UK should be wary of any attempts by the European Commission to take greater control of higher education policy as it could present a threat to institutional autonomy, a vice-chancellor has told a House of Lords committee.

November 11, 2011

Colin Riordan, head of the University of Essex, said recent policy proposals from the commission may reflect a feeling in Brussels that it “ought to be more closely involved” in the sector across the continent.

Giving evidence before a new inquiry by the Lords’ Social Policies and Consumer Protection EU Sub-Committee, Professor Riordan, who leads on international policy for Universities UK, said: “I think that’s something that we do need to be aware of and keep an eye on.

“I think there perhaps is a sense that the European Commission ought to be more closely involved. As I understand it there is some skepticism in the commission, for instance, about the Bologna Process – [that] it has been going about 10 years and they feel it hasn’t made fast enough progress.”

He added that such a view about the Bologna Process was wrong as it was “working pretty well” precisely because it was a development being forged through consent rather than compulsion.

“If you try and direct alignment that is going to work very much against university autonomy and we have to defend against that,” he said.

However, he also agreed that there was a degree of ambivalence towards the Bologna Process in the UK, mainly because it tended to fit the English-speaking model of higher education and meant greater change for other countries in Europe. “People just don’t think it applies to them,” he said.

Meanwhile, Professor Riordan also said UK universities would not welcome the introduction of the European wide U-Multirank tool for profiling institutions if it meant more red tape.

“If it is going to ask us to do more I don’t think that is acceptable,” he told the committee, which is investigating recent commission proposals for the future funding support of universities at the European level.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com

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