University autonomy works and should not be compromised

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Underlying many of the residual concerns over the Higher Education and Research Bill (which begins its consideration by the House of Lords this week) is the issue of institutional autonomy – and rightly so.

But it’s too easy for ‘autonomy!’ to be a rallying cry rather than a cohesive argument. It would be difficult to argue that the autonomy of universities is somehow intrinsically virtuous – rather we should consider the evidence around what might be sacrificed by the loss or reduction of autonomy and what might be gained by its retention.

Autonomy within the UK (and English in particular) higher education sector has contributed to the development, over many years, of a diverse set of institutions where that variety enhances the choice available to both prospective students and potential commissioners/supporters of research. It follows that universities should welcome the introduction of new providers to the sector, bringing different approaches and perspectives – subject always, of course, to the achievement of satisfactory assurance of quality to protect collective reputation.

Autonomy has been recognised as providing a key competitive advantage and has been identified as a critical factor in making the UK the “top performer” in the efficiency and effectiveness of public spending in tertiary education. Successive policy statements (Salamanca Declaration, 2001; Graz Declaration, 2003; Lisbon Declaration, 2007; Prague Declaration, 2009) made by pan-European higher education groups have recognised the fundamental importance of institutional autonomy in delivering world-class, competitive and effective higher education institutions and systems. Interestingly, the Lisbon Declaration argued that strong internal quality assurance correlated with greater autonomy, suggesting a possible unintended consequence if autonomy is reduced.

A study of the European University Association’s members for the University Autonomy in Europe scorecard suggests reducing autonomy has been linked to lower performance, and over-regulation of otherwise autonomous institutions through intrusive accountability mechanisms also has the effect of reducing performance which studies of other international systems support. Institutional autonomy has also been shown to be correlated with the ability to make the best use of new resources and with higher quality research outputs in Europe and the US.

The evidence base for the stakeholder benefits of institutional autonomy in the university sector is strong. It is in that light that concerns are expressed – and justified – with regard to some features of the Higher Education and Research Bill as it is presently drafted. Universities UK has expressed concerns around the proposed power of the Office for Students to validate degrees and has argued that academic standards must continue to be owned by institutions. Checks and balances need to be strengthened with regard to the powers to give and revoke Degree Awarding Powers and University title. A sector comprised of autonomous institutions should welcome the introduction of new players, but collective reputation must – for the national benefit – be protected by a suitably high bar for new entrants.

A Higher Education and Research Bill is needed, but we must ensure that the Bill does not inadvertently diminish the high standing and evident success of the university sector in England, and the UK more broadly.

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