Friday, 20 May 2016

This should worry you...

I've been thinking about blogging again, especially regards concerns such as the creeping power of the state in higher education and how universities are buying into this (and not for the reasons that the Islington Guardian reading set and professional left wingers would have you believe).

But you know, other stuff got in the way (contracts, travel)...

So this article 'THE: Higher education bill seeks powerful Office for Students'.worries me greatly and disturbed my morning cup of coffee.

The article outlines  the Higher Education and Research Bill 2016-17. The part that alarmed me was:
"The OfS [Office for Students] would also have the ability to revoke an institution’s right to call itself a university, even if that right was granted by Royal Charter."
Just in case one were to look at that in disbelief, the wording of the draft Bill is as follows:
"43 Variation or revocation of other authorisations to grant degrees etc
(1) The OfS may by order vary or revoke an authorisation given to an English
higher education provider or an English further education provider—
(a) by or under an Act of Parliament, other than under section 40(1) of this
Act, or
(b) by Royal Charter, to grant taught awards, research awards or foundation degrees.
(2) That is the case even if the authorisation was given for an indefinite period.
The journalists seem to have their facts straight here. In short, the new OfS formed by this bill could revoke Cambridge University's Royal Charter without recourse to Parliament (and even an Oxford graduate would not wish this upon them).

The issue here is HEI autonomy and the levers that the state can use/abuse to align HEIs with its agenda. It is supposed to be hard to remove degree awarding powers, as that is a protection for HEIs against the state.

Now the state does have a legititmate say in how any monies it gives to HEIs are spent. That is covered by the contracts universties enter into (e.g. the HEFCE Financial Memorandum or Research Grants). A university is free to decide not to enter into them (eg.Buckingham).

Now in the case of private HEIs this is less of an issue as they do not typically take UK students or research grants.

But both types of HEI take international students and QAA inspections are a condition of their UKVI licences.

So an HEI is policed to ensure that it is performing its educational duties and public monies are spent for their intend purposes. For a public university, protracted loss of the ability to take overseas students can be a major blow (London Met, anyone). For a private HEI it would likely shut it down in short order as few have no other viable business model.

In any case, there would be accountablity through the courts to ensure that ministers are acting within the powers given to them by Parliament

The question is: why would the state legitmately need more than the above?

Also were degree awarding powers to be removed from HEIs, who should do it? There has been an increasing democratic deficit over the last 20 years of the increasing use of secondary legistation where decisions are taken away for Parliament and give it to ministers or delegated bodies. This is such an example.

It could be too easy to bully and gag HEIs. If an HEI was obviously not upholding academic standards, then it would be no issue in the hardest case getting Parliament to vote an Act enabling removal of powers as would be the case now for Chartered Universities. So why make it easier?

In short, the proposals seem to be overly powerful. It is unclear why these powers are needed outside of making it tidier for ministers or civil servants. But at what cost in the future?

I will be reading the Act and the surrounding literature in the coming weeks. At first glance it reads as a change of structures and if (more) student finance changes are not in the frame it may pass the public by. But such structural changes can soften up change for a less obvious agenda.

That is what worries me.