Building a better specialist case for autonomy

Universities are no strangers to change, nor are they afraid of it. For many years, universities have been measured, monitored, reported on and graded for their performance by regulatory bodies through data submissions, peer review and analysis – and by media groups through influential-but-flawed league tables.

The question seldom seems to be “what are the right metrics to inform policy and the public”, but more like “what else can we measure”? Yet, as Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the new universities regulator for England, the Office for Students, told The Times recently: “You can’t regulate for greatness.”

There is an essential ingredient to UK universities’ success whatever reform is required now and in future: autonomy.

The evergreen question

Take a long view, and it’s clear that each post-war political generation has wrestled with a fundamental question: What is higher education for? Today’s headlines may be more bitter – and biting – than in the past, but they follow long and divergent lines of argument around that fundamental question.

We’ve moved from Harold Macmillan’s decision to commission the Robbins Report, to Harold Wilson’s passion for the “University of the Air”, Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of the Research Assessment Exercise, to the introduction of tuition fees under Tony Blair and their expansion under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

Through nearly three-quarters of a century of policymaking, there has been a widening of access, new regulation and performance measures, efforts to introduce competition and market forces, and a rethinking of who should bear the cost. But the Prime Minister’s appointment in February of the year-long post-18 funding review is a reminder we are still far from a settled political answer to that fundamental question.

The specialists’ answer

Many specialist institutions, like Norwich University of the Arts, trace their history to the passion for arts and crafts of the Victorian era. The connection between the arts, crafts, employment and industry is deep rooted in these institutions: we produce makers and creators. We introduce tools and techniques and help students to hone their skills, but we do not seek to tell them what to make and what to create nor stifle their ingenuity, curiosity and creativity. Creativity may be a politically unfashionable word, but it is an attribute at the heart of innovation in any industry.

So, what is higher education at a specialist university for? We teach students how to learn. We equip them with the intellectual tools to interrogate, adapt and thrive in a future of global demographic and economic change, technological development, the decline of old industries and emergence of new opportunities. We cannot predict the future, but we can help students prepare for the uncertainty of it.

The chilling effect of metrics

Yet faced with narrow political definitions of employability, we find the historic strength of our approach being reduced to chasing metrics. We see the potential of metrics to misdirect the value of what we do and underestimate what our graduates will achieve over the course of their careers. Do we measure the success of Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, by how much he earned six months after graduating from Newcastle Polytechnic, now Northumbria University?

There is also a danger that metrics incentivise institutions to focus on the familiar, established and popular rather than introduce new courses, encourage interdisciplinary thinking, or develop new modes of study. Universities’ appetite to experiment and innovate is challenged by the fear of losing position in any one of the myriad league tables and rankings. That is neither in students’ interest, nor the national interest.

To take an example, more than a decade ago, Norwich University of the Arts introduced Games Art and Design – a move that, to put it politely, was greeted with some scepticism at the time. Today, the course is thriving: three graduates are BAFTA-winning games designers, the course is valued by one of Britain’s fastest-growing industries, and Norwich University of the Arts has been awarded the title of “best educational institution” in the field by the industry body. It has taken time; but it has been time well-invested. It was a decision rooted in our institutional autonomy rather than influenced by metrics, ministerial or regulatory guidance.

Building a better case for autonomy

Autonomy is how specialist universities – and others – navigate political tides that change every five or ten years to equip each generation of students with the knowledge and skills that will serve them well in their future: adaptability and resilience.

This is a not an argument against accountability. Any institution in receipt of public funds must be answerable for how those funds are used. Similarly, more must be done to advance higher education’s role as a driver of social mobility. Instead, this is an argument in favour of innovation and the freedom to innovate that autonomy brings. All universities must better explain the purpose and value of our independence and how it helps to advance the national interest regardless of which political party forms the government of the day.

We need to articulate better the case for autonomy.

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