Words by Liz Morrish, independent scholar.

One thing governments have learned over the last 30 years is not to let a disaster go to waste. In the guise of offering a survival strategy for universities in the pandemic, the Department for Education has issued a document: Establishment of a Higher Education Restructuring Regime in Response to COVID-19.

The Regime ostensibly promises a relief package for universities which find themselves in financial difficulty due to factors beyond their control. These include loss of income from overseas student fees which is predicted to fall precipitously. However, it is clear there is no bailout; relief comes in the form of a repayable loan, and there are a number of conditions attached. Particularly, the government is keen to see a re-focus on scientific research and ‘a much greater reorientation towards the needs of the local and regional economy’:

‘Providers will need to examine whether they can enhance their regional focus. I want it to be the norm for far more universities to have adopted a much more strongly applied mission, firmly embedded in the economic fabric of their local area, and consider where appropriate delivery of quality higher technical education or apprenticeships. And all universities must, of course, demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech, as cornerstones of our liberal democracy.’

While its content has been discussed on several HE forums and news outlets over the past few days, no-one, it seems, has questioned the origin or legitimacy of this pronouncement. Perhaps we are already used to having policy made on the hoof, outside of parliament and by the sort of unelected ‘elites’ the Brexiteers had railed against. But to my mind, a restructuring ‘Regime’ does not sound like a consultation, a discussion or a review, nor is it being presented as a Green or White Paper. This is an edict beyond parliamentary scrutiny, and one wonders what else it would take for Higher Education Minister, Michelle Donelan (whose name does not appear on the document), to be accused of ministerial overreach.

It is noteworthy that the terms of the package outlined in the Regime differ from those accompanying an earlier grant/ loan scheme intended to replace revenues from charities, businesses or international student fees which have supported research in universities. While lenders may be expected to impose conditions on their beneficiaries, this does not seem to be the case for this tranche of loans announced in June. It is assumed that science and medicine will be the recipients, but otherwise the understanding is, “Universities will be required to demonstrate that funds are being spent on research and on retaining research talent”. 

And then there is the question of whether the proposals of the Regime stand in conflict with the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 which enshrines the protection of university autonomy. It is worth reminding ourselves exactly what HERA says, courtesy of Gary Attle blogging in 2018 on the AHUA (Association of Heads of University Administration) website.

The Act includes an express statutory duty on the new regulator, the Office of Students, to have regard to the need to protect the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers as it goes about its functions. “Institutional autonomy” has been defined in section 2 (8) of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 for these purposes as:

  • a) the freedom of English higher education providers within the law to conduct their day to day management in an effective and competent way;
  • b) the freedom of English higher education providers –
    • i) to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed,
    • ii) to determine the criteria for the selection, appointment and dismissal of academic staff and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
    • iii) to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
  • c) the freedom within the law of academic staff at English higher education providers-
    • i) to question and test received wisdom, and
    • ii) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at the providers.

It looks as if the government is seeking to override the protections of bi) and biii). Indeed, the very mention of autonomy has been dismissed; Gary Attle describes the struggle to include an amendment which ultimately did not pass.

‘During the passage of the bill, an amendment was tabled to include on the face of the legislation what might be seen as the quintessential features of a UK university: their autonomy. This includes the imperatives that they must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech; that they “contribute to society through the pursuit, dissemination and application of knowledge’; and that they must ‘be free to act as critics of government and the conscience of society.’

Over to the regulator, and Susan Lapworth, Director of Competition and Registration at the Office for Students, blogging on the OfS website, also in 2018, notes the OfS is required to ‘have regard’ for institutional autonomy, but states this is not an absolute. Some of the Act’s provisions may be in tension with each other, for example, competition might not be the best guarantor of equality of access and participation. Nevertheless, ‘providers are free to make their own academic decisions’ and to set vice chancellors’ salaries. But, wait – this is another curtailment hinted at in the Regime, this time in breach of section a) of HERA. Has university autonomy been declared null and void by one sole government edict? How soon before the UK emulates other authoritarian governments, such as Hungary or Brazil, in deciding to outlaw gender studies or other perceived left-wing critical areas? The government seems to want to re-shape universities in terms of curriculum, delivery, recruitment and management. This is, to use an over-worked term in 2020, unprecedented. 

This kind of dirigisme is unlikely to add to the allure of universities for either staff or students. A government and regulator which upholds the primacy of the marketised university and the consumer model seems now to be tuning 180 degrees towards centralised, autocratic control. 

I have been fortunate to hear Dr Rowan Williams, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, speak at two Zoom meetings in the last week. When speaking at the AGM of the CDBU (Council for the Defence of British Universities), Lord Williams emphasised how important it is for universities to model democratic decision making if they are, as the Regime document suggests, ‘cornerstones of our liberal democracy’. In the other meeting, this time to launch the latest statement from the Convention for Higher Education, he argued for a measure of the public good of higher education that goes beyond the economistic. In order to deliver liberation, academic practitioners must be prepared to seize back control of governance from those who have presided over ‘the barbarizing policies of previous years.’ From a former Archbishop of Canterbury, these are strong words, but they are timely, especially when we address the ideological implications of the Regime for student unions.

‘The funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns.’

It is extraordinary to demonise all student campaigning as illegitimate ‘activism’. In contrast to the above, during his address to the CDBU, Lord Williams urged universities to become more democratic in order to offer a generation steeped in grass-roots activism a reason to remain within them. And furthermore, I have just been listening to the moving tributes to Congressman John Lewis in the USA, a notable leader of the 1960s civil rights struggle. One of his more memorable quotes was ‘if you see something that is not right, you have a moral obligation to say something and do something about it’. John Lewis was an activist and he suffered violence and discrimination because of it. Today he is regarded as a pioneer and a hero. How can the minister for higher education decide unilaterally and a priori that all activism should be prohibited? This is not conservatism; it is something more sinister entirely.

It remains to be seen whether VCs fall into line with the Regime or will seek to avoid drifting within its jurisdiction at all costs. Paradoxically, these costs may be the loss of STEM programs and departments which are costly to teach and resource and are often cross-subsidized by higher recruitment of arts and humanities students. This Guardian article by Glen O’Hara predicts that universities will shed STEM subjects in favour of the cheaper humanities ones. 

I’m not so sure. Vice chancellors have all too often been willing to genuflect to government wishes even to the point of sacrificing valuable research capacity and indeed entire chemistry and languages departments when it seemed expedient to respond to incentives. The conditions of the Regime loans seem designed to divide the sector into two: government-controlled and autonomous universities, perhaps foreshadowing another division into publicly funded and private ones. I wonder how many of them will align with Rowan Williams’ vision for universities as transformative institutions and forces for intellectual growth. This is a crucial decision for university leaders, indeed all university workers, to make. Gary Attle’s blog ends with this thought: ‘What remains to be seen is how these twin features of the new architecture – autonomy and accountability – will co-exist’. Two years on, the answer to that is now very apparent, and we must fight hard to protect university autonomy across the sector. 

Read more from Liz Morrish on her blog, Academic Irregularities.