Welsh Assembly defends academic autonomy

New powers for the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales are ‘disproportionate’, say Assembly members

October 9, 2014

New powers over universities proposed for the Welsh funding council are “disproportionate”, Assembly members say.

A report by the Welsh Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee recommends that clauses protecting institutional and academic autonomy be inserted into the Higher Education (Wales) Bill, which aims to hand statutory powers to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales to replace the leverage it exercised through the distribution of teaching grants.

Universities have raised concerns that the legislation could lead to “micromanagement” of the sector by ministers and Hefcw, principally through the development of fee plans that institutions must submit for approval.

The latest guidance on fee plans focuses on widening access but also encourages universities to detail their proposals in areas such as mental health support, teacher training and the “student experience generally”.

Institutions argued that this was “excessively wide” – especially since, under the new legislation, Hefcw would be able to issue a “compliance direction” to ensure that a university sticks to its fee plan.

The committee report agrees that there is “a danger of overregulation” and recommends that safeguards against this be inserted. “The committee believes that the new powers contained in the bill are disproportionate in relation to a mature sector…and that the bill may have an adverse effect on the principle that institutions should operate at ‘arm’s length’ from government,” it says.

The legislation also gives Hefcw authority to enforce a new financial management code, and some institutions have warned that these powers are so extensive that they may cause the Office for National Statistics to reclassify universities as part of the public sector, meaning any surpluses would go to the Welsh government.

The report describes the risk of this as “low”, but recommends that ministers seek expert advice on the issue.

Simon Thomas, the Plaid Cymru shadow education minister, said: “We need to get the balance right between government’s legitimate interest in this field and the independence of universities.”

chris.havergal@tesglobal.com

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