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Why we must protect university autonomy

  • 3 April 2017

HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, will today deliver a major speech on university autonomy at the inaugural meeting of the G20 – a group of Presidents from independent (or independent-minded) colleges and universities around the world – taking place at the University of Buckingham.

In his speech, he will:

  1. note the benefits that institutional autonomy provides UK universities in terms of their global standing;
  2. claim universities are more autonomous than they are always willing to admit;
  3. warn against crying wolf over university autonomy too readily;
  4. argue that recent changes in England, including tripling tuition fees and removing student number controls, have increased institutional autonomy;
  5. show official support for new providers stems less from a desire for fully-blown marketisation and more from a desire to shape the sector indirectly;
  6. criticise the House of Lords’s amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill (New Clause 1) defining what a university it and call on MPs to reverse it;
  7. show the risks of pure autonomy, including uniformity and hierarchy, which the university sector must guard against;
  8. defend external scrutiny of universities, despite their autonomy; and
  9. call on Parliament to start debating the optimum categorisation of different sorts of higher education providers; and
  10. predict further higher education legislation will prove necessary in the future.

Why we must protect university autonomy: Speech to the inaugural G20 meeting at the University of Buckingham

Embargo: 2.30pm, 3rd April 2017

Introduction: The University of Buckingham

Thank you inviting me. It is a great pleasure to be back here at Buckingham, particularly under its dynamic new leadership. Since it was founded 40 years ago, the University of Buckingham has occupied a unique place in British higher education. This is principally because of its exceptional level of independence, which was enshrined by the Royal Charter it secured in 1983.

This freedom has displayed itself in numerous ways, but particularly:

  • through Buckingham’s innovative two-year degree model;
  • in the provision of an unrivalled student experience; and
  • by giving a congenial home to academics whose work has benefited from the freer air on offer here.

It is an undeniably successful model. To take just one tiny example, last Thursday we published a report on how universities can best work with the media. It takes one Buckingham member of staff, Professor Alan Smithers, to show how academics can increase their impact in public life.

To an outsider like me, it seems as if the University has recently entered a new and very important phase in its history. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is only now – finally – on the cusp of fulfilling the role that its founding fathers, including Anthony’s father, hoped for. As Buckingham took its first students in 1976, as the University College at Buckingham, the saying ‘life begins at 40’ has never felt more apt. It is good to see that the 40th anniversary will be celebrated at a reception later this month.

Under Anthony’s leadership, the University:

  • is developing many new partnerships;
  • has ambitious plans for growth; and
  • has founded the Festival of Higher Education, which is becoming a firm fixture on the higher education calendar.

I am delighted that the Higher Education Policy Institute that I head up will be partnering with Buckingham on two debates at this year’s Festival, one on higher education league tables and the other on the appropriate role for profit-making in the provision of education.

Despite Buckingham’s position as the UK’s pre-eminent wholly independent university, I do not actually want to dwell on its specific position in our higher education system. The small number of not-for-profit fully independent universities, such as Buckingham and also Regent’s University London (where we are holding our annual conference in June), have a great deal in common with the traditional university sector – except perhaps in research, which I shall return to at the end of my remarks.

This is because all British universities are private, autonomous, independent; pick your word of choice. We do not have a single public university. This means there is considerably less difference between our universities that have received funding from taxpayers and some of those that have had to rely on their own wits to secure financial resources, including Buckingham, than is commonly supposed. Moreover, many of the differences that did once exist have reduced in recent years. So much of what I will go on to say makes no clear distinction between Buckingham and the mass of UK universities.


Autonomy has been the essential prerequisite for all UK universities to thrive and the level of autonomy enjoyed by our universities is broadly accepted or even celebrated on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. It is no coincidence that we have both the best universities in Europe according to every global league table and, according to the European Universities Association, the most autonomous. Academic excellence flows from academic freedom, and there is no other country the size of ours that has so many world-class universities or which produces such a breadth of world-class research.

It takes only a glance at other countries to see how deeply university autonomy runs in Britain. In some other European countries, academics are civil servants, new courses have to be agreed with government and universities are expected to enrol any student who hits a national standard. To British eyes, running a university in such places has much in common with running a big school. Here, universities’ autonomy over admissions is enshrined in law, higher education leaders set the terms and conditions for their staff free from government interference and institutions can open or close any course they like.

The fact that we have no public universities is poorly understood and can sometimes be frustrating for policymakers who, for example, have:

  • no means of responding to negative media stories about university leaders’ pay;
  • no direct mechanism for ensuring free speech on campus; and
  • no way to reform the underfunded pension scheme for academics.

It is because the autonomy of our universities is so valued and so real that nearly every suggestion for changing anything about British universities is caricatured as an attack on institutional autonomy – and has been for decades. In reality, the autonomy of our universities has proved more resilient than the critics of Whitehall care to admit. This is quite possibly because our politicians have so often recognised its value, including absolving themselves from blame when things go wrong!

Sometimes, the critics have resembled the boy who cried wolf. Curiously, two of the loudest and most respected critics to have accused the current Government of seeking to abolish autonomy are called Wolf. Baroness Alison Wolf has helped to lead the opposition in the House of Lords. Her husband, the Financial Times Chief Economics Commentator Martin Wolf, has written, ‘Make no mistake, this is a fully-fledged government takeover of the UK’s university sector.’

I disagree. Although there have been warning bells in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party administration has been accused of trampling upon university autonomy, I suspect UK universities are – and will remain – more autonomous than even our own academics sometimes like to admit. Last Thursday, The Conversation website ran an article by two Manchester Metropolitan University staff members that erroneously said the university system ‘is part of the public sector.’ Why is this mistake so often made?

Many people working in universities like to stress they are delivering a public good by providing higher education, even though there is no necessity for this to be delivered by state institutions. Underestimating one’s own autonomy additionally allows government to be blamed when things go wrong: while you want Ministers to leave you alone when you are deciding what to research, you are tempted to ask them to intervene when your department is at risk of closure or your fellow academics seem to be under-funding your sub-discipline. When I worked for the last Government, as the Special Adviser to David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science (2010-2014), we assiduously avoided getting involved in such disputes – even when some organic chemists who thought their specialisms were not being looked after properly delivered a coffin to Number 10, Downing Street.

The confusion leads to some rather lazy arguments. For example, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Government in office from 2010 until 2015 strengthened institutional autonomy by tripling tuition fees, thereby ensuring that most university income for teaching derives from students themselves. This funding change then allowed Ministers to remove their foot from the brake by abolishing student number controls, which had artificially restricted home and EU undergraduates. (One reason why some of the anger about Brexit in our universities can seem a little synthetic is that they have fewer EU students than is often supposed – fewer than one-third of international students in the UK come from non-EU countries – which is precisely because of the numbers cap that was in force until so recently.)

Removing the cap is perhaps the single biggest social reform, certainly the biggest educational reform, that George Osborne was able to push through. Yet is has been completely ignored in some academic accounts of the Coalition’s higher education reforms (as I have explained in a piece for the Oxford Review of Education). Removing number controls is the policy I am proudest to have worked on in 20 years of policy-making activity because it allows the best possible fit between applicants and places. As a result, it strengthened the autonomy of our universities in a very real – sometimes painful – way. For some institutions, this has meant big increases in full-time undergraduate students; for others, it has meant a period of contraction.

Despite this, when I worked in Whitehall, we were routinely accused of seeking to control universities. The absence of effective examples to support this argument did not hinder the critics. In reality, we had an eye on the importance of university autonomy in every decision we took. So much so that this was the single most important driver of our policy to encourage more new institutions who would do things in new ways: if you cannot reform institutions because their autonomy is (rightly) untouchable, you can still shape what they do by facilitating competition.

New providers

It is often claimed that we had some special preference for new providers and favoured ‘marketisation’ for ideological reasons. But our desire to see new entrants was more about providing a competitive challenge than a market in all its forms, hence the shift in rhetoric from ‘private providers’ to ‘alternative providers’ to ‘challenger institutions’. Inside Government, we never used the word ‘marketisation’ when discussing our own policies. This was not intentional avoidance of a horrible word; it just never seemed the accurate term for describing the main elements of our policies – even if, collectively, they did incorporate some features of a market. Commentators who complain that successive UK Governments have tried to marketise higher education while blocking their own market from working through bureaucratic oversight are missing the point. A fully-blown market was not the intention.

It is only because the new entrants have enjoyed the same institutional autonomy as traditional universities that they have been able to do old stuff in new ways. This has been the goal of successive waves of new providers in British higher education, whether it was London University in the early nineteenth century, the red bricks at the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century or the polytechnics, which were established a generation after the end of the Second World War.

That was what Margaret Thatcher hoped to see here at the University of Buckingham too, when she helped establish the University College here in her time as Secretary of State for Education in the early 1970s. Around the same time, she encouraged a different sort of innovative provision down the road in Milton Keynes. Despite the urgings of colleagues, she refused to close down the Open University (OU) even though it had been a flagship project of the late 1960s Labour Government.

The OU was the opposite of Buckingham in all sorts of ways:

  • it was designed to deliver longer, part-time degrees rather than accelerated ones;
  • it favoured large distance-learning cohorts rather than small face-to-face groups; and;
  • it was funded directly by Whitehall rather than through contributions from students.

While Buckingham was the most independent university in the country, the Open University was the closest to the state. The OU has since been a tremendously successful project. Like Buckingham, it has done very well in student satisfaction ratings and the UK is lucky to have it. But, rather than providing a competitive challenge, it has sometimes – regrettably – provided a ‘safety valve’ (in Martin Trow’s words) for more traditional institutions to avoid change. The OU does credit transfer, part-time, blended learning, distance learning and MOOCs brilliantly well, so others don’t need to, or so the argument sometimes runs.

We have seen similar confusion over what it means to be autonomous more recently in some of the overblown rhetoric on the Higher Education and Research Bill currently before Westminster. In a fit of anger, the House of Lords defeated the Government to insert a definition of what a university is on the face of the Bill as New Clause 1. This is problematic for many reasons but the most important is that universities are living entities. They have constantly changed throughout the last millennium, since the first European university was founded in Bologna in 1088. The current form that our universities happen to take in 2017 may appear ideal to many members of our unelected medieval parliamentary chamber. But trying to embarrass the Government by putting a definition of what a university is in primary legislation resembles a boxer punching himself in the face in a vain attempt to hurt his opponent.

When I made this point in a blog on our website, I received an email from Australia, which read:

I’ve just seen your piece…about the Lords decision to amend the HE&Res Bill by defining the university and I totally agree that this is a very bad idea. Since we did the same here, … it has been a nightmare. To the extent that any diversity existed previously it has completely disappeared, and we are left with the uncomfortable situation that having allowed existing universities not to be judged by the new definitions, we now have new institutions arguing that they are being judged by criteria that are not met by about half our existing institutions…

Placing the current sector in aspic is not the same as protecting it to meet the demands of the future. The new legal definition remains in the Bill at the moment but hopefully our elected MPs will have more sense and overturn the House of Lords’s decision before the Bill receives Royal Assent. As Universities UK have said, there are better ways to protect the core attributes of a university and, indeed, other parts of the latest version of the Bill already do this.

On Friday, I visited the other university in this diverse and wonderful county in which I am so lucky to live. It is younger even than the OU and Buckingham, having become a university just ten years ago. It is based in High Wycombe and, while there, I sat in a flight simulator, watched a music producer teach in a studio sponsored by a headphone manufacturer and saw a mock operating theatre used to train people in coping with medical emergencies. One particular innovation of theirs is the delivery of courses with a for-profit partner for people studying inside Premiership football clubs.

Although Buckinghamshire New has only been a university for a decade, the institution itself was founded under Queen Victoria using the proceeds of a liquor tax. Imagine how uniform and small our university system would be if our Victorian forebears had defined what every university should look like in primary legislation for ever more as today’s peers now want to do. They would presumably have allowed vocational subjects like Law and Medicine, perhaps even Brewing as at the University of Birmingham founded in 1900. But there would have been no scope for yet-to-be-invented subjects like TV production, events management or ethical hacking.

The limits of autonomy

Nonetheless, we have to recognise that there can be downsides from supreme autonomy too.

In particular, autonomy must not be allowed to develop into uniformity where incumbents opt to behave alike or even to block new entrants from emerging. It was a tragedy that there was no new English university for 600 years, from the early thirteenth century to the early nineteenth century because the Oxbridge duopoly wanted to protect their exalted position.

Arguably, the long relative stagnation of Oxbridge reflected the very lack of competition that they themselves had encouraged. For example, they forced the closure of the University of Northampton. It had been founded in 1261 but Henry III shut it down four years later, after Oxford complained about the local competition.

It took 740 years, until 2005, for Northampton to regain a university but now that it has one, it rivals Buckingham in terms of its bold plans for the future. They have sold their main campus to housebuilders and are currently relocating en masse to a new, purpose-built development on a 58-acre brownfield site alongside the River Nene, at a cost of £330 million. This new campus is built around new pedagogical models – hence, it will have only one lecture hall but lots of small-class teaching and online learning. Such diversity is surely welcome.

Autonomy should also not be allowed to become excessive hierarchy. Yet some would argue that this has become a defining feature of our university system. There are many reasons why we have such a hierarchical university system, which means your best-fit university might be on the other side of the country. As I have written about at length, they include our single national university admissions system (UCAS), our generous maintenance support system which enables students to live far from home and our long tradition of sending even young children away from home to be educated.

While leaving autonomous universities free to get on with their job, generation after generation of politicians have felt they have insufficient levers to respond to the needs of the economy and the demands of the labour market – particularly in relation to people other than school leavers. That was why Anthony Crosland disobeyed Lord Robbins and established the polytechnics. It is why Vince Cable became frustrated with the universities for which he had policy responsibility under our recent Coalition Government. And it is why, as a country, we are now answering the same question in a different way, through a new system of degree-level apprenticeships funded by a new Apprenticeship Levy.

I hope my speech has shown that I tend to think that the best higher education system is one in which students are free to choose what to study and institutions are free to choose which courses to run. But it is nonetheless irrational to block local leaders from being able to help with the supply of skills for specific industries. So it is a good thing that not all higher education is delivered by wholly autonomous universities operating on their own and that Further Education colleges and training providers play a role too. As part of this, it is worth noting there is nothing wrong with teaching someone else’s qualifications: indeed, it has the benefit of providing an additional external quality check.

And we must not let autonomy become an excuse for letting objectively uncomfortable things thrive, such as persistently low levels of mental health among students, or poor access to some universities for those from tougher backgrounds or clampdowns on (legal) free speech.

Critics of recent government policy on higher education have adopted a clever argument focusing on how the sector has been forced to become more accountable as direct public funding has fallen. Michael Shattock, for example, has written, ‘paradoxically it seemed that the more institutions raised the proportion of their income which came from non-state sources the tighter the regulatory regime of state control became.’

That is an enticing argument that I used to sympathise with. But, in fact, what has happened is how it should be: in this day and age, running an independent institution with hundreds of millions of pounds in income from multiple sources should never mean running an institution closed to the eyes of the outside world. Moreover, while accountability should come from robust internal governance procedures, on the really big things it should also come from outside, including from official bodies. This is surely part of the reason why we are continuing to see new ways of assessing our universities, including through the controversial new Teaching Excellence Framework.

We also need to recognise that, while university autonomy has been the most important driver of success for UK universities, it is not the only way to reach the top. Just look at some of the initiatives going on in places with a less secure democratic tradition. Countries like China and Russia are pumping resources into higher education institutions with the specific goal of improving their global standing.


I want to make one more point before I end. The original idea for a university like Buckingham is usually dated to a letter that appeared in The Times on 27th May 1967. A physician called J. W. Paulley wrote:

Is it now time to examine the possibility of creating at least one university in this country on the pattern of [the] great private foundations in the USA.

Despite its success in the four decades since this letter was published, the University of Buckingham still does not resemble the most famous independent US universities in one key respect. It is not entitled to public funding for research.

One oddity of the debates on the Higher Education Bill has been the lack of discussion about the different categories of higher education institutions that we should have in the UK. The white paper on which the new legislation is based listed three types:

  1. Registered providers, which will be formally recognised but receive no preferential treatment;
  2. Approved providers, which will have uncapped fees but no entitlement to direct public funding for teaching or research, while their students will have restricted access to student finance; and
  3. Approved (fee cap) providers, which will have their fees (and loans) capped at £9,000 per annum (plus inflation where applicable) and which may receive public funding for teaching and research.

There are two issues with this that need further discussion than they have received to date.

First, the new system replicates most of the features of the current system. For example, as now, Buckingham would still have to lose sight of its founders by entering the most regulated category if it wants access to research funding. That seems a little strange when you consider that public research funding is meant to be distributed according to the quality of the research rather than the precise institutional form of the university. Don’t forget, the legislation currently in front of Parliament splits the funding of teaching and research by placing the Higher Education Funding Council’s research funding responsibilities within the new UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) body. In this context, continuing to link undergraduate fee caps and entitlement to research funding so intimately seems odd.

Secondly, if you look carefully in the Government’s own fairly obscure Impact Assessment for the legislation, you will see the biggest category is  actually a fourth one of unregulated providers. It is estimated there will be over 550 providers ‘outside the system’ in 2018/19. I am not suggesting these providers should have no right to exist; they will typically be regulated as companies even if they are not regulated as education providers. But the legislation currently before Parliament was meant to put the different sorts of higher education providers on the same playing field. In reality, around half of them won’t even enter the ground. There is a potential reputational risk for the whole UK higher education sector from having so many unregulated institutions educating so many students.

Despite being the target of more amendments that any previous Bill in the House of Lords, such issues have yet to be debated properly (despite our best efforts). Indeed, it seems to me that the rather sterile debate the House of Lords had on defining exactly what a university is in law avoided the need for a more mature, sophisticated and important debate about what a truly diverse higher education system looks like.

For that reason, although many parts of the current Bill are welcome and overdue, I suspect it is unlikely to be the last major piece of higher education legislation in our lifetimes.

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