Amendments have been tabled to the Higher Education (Wales) Bill in a bid to safeguard institutional autonomy, in response to concerns expressed by Welsh Assembly members and universities that the legislation would hand “disproportionate” authority to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.
A report from the Assembly’s children, young people and education committee had highlighted how the requirement for universities to submit fee plans for approval focused not just on widening access but also on other areas such as mental health support, teacher training and the “student experience generally”, warning that there was a “danger of overregulation”. Universities have also expressed concern about “micromanagement” by Hefcw and ministers.
The committee recommended that new clauses protecting academic freedom should be inserted, and education minister Huw Lewis has now accepted this.
Part of the amendment reads: “In exercising functions by virtue of this Act, Hefcw must take into account the importance of protecting academic freedom including, in particular, the freedom of institutions to determine the contents of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised or assessed; to determine the criteria for the admission of students and to apply those criteria in particular cases; and to determine the criteria for the selection and appointment of academic staff and to apply those criteria in particular cases.”
The amendment also clarifies that Hefcw will not have the power to require a university to do anything which is incompatible with its charitable status or its governing documents.
Announcing his intention to introduce the amendments, Mr Lewis told Assembly members he now expected that the legislation would be fully implemented in 2017-18 rather than 2016-17 to allow for the government and Hefcw to “resolve some if not all of the sector’s concerns”.
“This will allow my officials and Hefcw to put in place a plan that is deliverable and benefits the students of Wales,” he said.
Addressing Assembly members, he added that the guarantees on institutional autonomy and charitable status would “ensure that the Welsh government’s intentions on these matters are put beyond doubt”.
The legislation is designed to hand statutory powers to Hefcw to replace the leverage it once exercised through the distribution of teaching grants.