Wednesday, 5 August 2009

University autonomy: UK swims against the European tide

With the publication of its report into Students and Universities, the Westminster Innovation Universities, Science and Skills Committee, chaired by Phil Willis, underwent some violent death throes on Sunday and made certain that no one in the sector would fail to notice its passing. The Committee's report and its recommendations made something of a media splash and were covered by The Sunday Times, The BBC, The Telegraph, The Observer amongst numerous others. Whilst the media predominantly focused on the rising numbers of firsts awarded and the comparability of qualifications from different institutions,the UCU issued a statement welcoming the recommendations on bursaries.

The Russell Group, however, appeared most affronted by what the report had to say and announced it was "dismayed and surprised" by the Committee's "outburst". By contrast the 1994 Group was more diplomatic, welcoming the "challenging and wide-ranging report", whilst labelling the proposals for a national bursary scheme "a mistake." Whether for strategic reasons or otherwise, Million+ chose not to offer any comment .

The report's 166 pages make for interesting reading, but anyone in the sector will get a good sense of why it caused such ructions from skimming the two page Summary at the start and the Conclusion & Recommendations (p. 136ff). The dominant theme I took away from the document was its determination to measure the sector against the implicit ideal of a coherent and structured collection of homogeneous and directly comparable universities. Whilst never explicitly articulated, it is this desire to bring order and political control that seem to underpin the proposals for national oversight, for a national bursary scheme, for comparability and for a "compact" between the sector and the state.

It is this same theme that appears to have so irked the Russell Group, most notably in the following passage from its response to the report:
The world class reputation of Russell Group universities depends on maintaining excellence. But universities are not schools. An essential feature of a university is its academic freedom and autonomy, with the responsibility to award degrees and uphold standards. While our institutions are working hard to provide more information on what students can expect from their courses, introducing a university equivalent of ‘Ofsted’ will only add another layer of bureaucracy.

The report's discussion of autonomy and the its suggestion of a more tightly regulated relationship with the state echoes some of the work of the Joint Future Thinking Taskforce in Scotland. The Taskforce's report, published late last year, sought to establish the Scottish Funding Council as an ‘agent of change’, allocating part of its funding (the 'Horizon Fund') to provide incentives to universities in order that they deliver on government priorities.

The apparent desire of UK politicians to curtail universities' autonomy, runs counter to the dominant mode of thought elsewhere in the EU. In 2006 the European Commission called for "modernised universities" and sought to build on the Glasgow Declaration by proposing that EU members:

Allow universities greater autonomy and accountability, so that they can respond quickly to change. This could include revising curricula to adapt to new developments, building closer links between disciplines and focussing on overall research areas domains (e.g. renewable energy, nanotechnology) rather than disciplines. It could also include more autonomy at individual institution level for choosing teaching and research staff.
Three years on, other EU states continue to look to the achievements of more autonomous institutions in the UK and the USA and seek to reduce state control in universities. The most notable of a series of reforms across Europe have been those in Germany. Increased autonomy from the state and other elements of the "Anglo-Saxon" model of higher education have been pushed through as part of significant reforms to the sector.

If the Committee's recommendations find favour with UK ministers, England may join Scotland in swimming against the European tidal flow. If so, UK universities could find their competitive advantage eroded as the freedoms that have hitherto enabled them to remain fleet of foot and to compete effectively in an aggressive international market ebb away.

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