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How to Save Britain’s Universities: A New Type of Free University

  • 21 August 2020
  • By Philip Cunliffe

This blog was kindly contributed by Philip Cunliffe, Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent and author of the recent report ‘Saving Britain’s Universities: Academic Freedom, Democracy and Renewal’ published by Cieo.

Just as university recruitment looked as if it was beginning to settle, the Government’s U-turn on A-levels scrambled universities’ expectations and planning once again, compounding the annus horribilis for British universities that began with the Covid-19 pandemic. The sector as a whole now teeters on the precipice, with an exhausted and demoralised profession losing tens of thousands of its members as institutions lay off their precariously employed temporary teaching staff. Meanwhile, institutions struggle to plan for their teaching under conditions of stringent social distancing, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies having identified as many as 13 institutions at risk of going bust.

Despite the immediacy of these challenges, the truth is that ‘presentism’ has dominated university life and decision-making for many years now, as the sector has had constantly to react to policy shifts designed to foster competitive processes while securing the desired public outcomes of the government of the day. The trebling of fees, the lifting of caps on student recruitment, the launch of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) are a few examples of these policies intended to induce market-style consumer choice and competition. If universities are to escape their default reactive posture – always flinching in anticipation of the next government initiative – then it is time to start thinking not only of immediate redress for the sector’s woes, but also to consider a longer term vision for Britain’s higher education sector.

This is what Lee Jones and I have tried to do in a new report recently published by the think tank Cieo: Saving Britain’s Universities: Academic Freedom, Democracy and Renewal. There is one proposal in particular that I would like to discuss in a little more detail here – namely, our proposal for four new ‘Free Universities’, one for each constituent part of the United Kingdom. As the name suggests, these Free Universities are inspired by the continental model, repurposed for the twenty-first century.

Although our report offers a range of policy prescriptions that we feel would improve the sector both in the short and medium-term, it is also true that institutions and professions take time to adapt – a problem that is compounded by the nature of universities that are, after all, supposed to be seats of learning rather than nimble market corporations. Being cognisant of this, in our report we sought to offer not only policy prescriptions but also to give concrete institutional form to this vision in the shape of these proposed Free Universities.

As the name suggests, these new institutions would be founded on the principle of extending the meaning of academic freedom to the greatest possible extent. Our Free Universities would be free for their students to attend, they would enshrine academic freedom in their modus operandi, they would be constitutionally autonomous from government, and they would be run along democratic lines, with senior executive positions to be decided by election from the academic body. Our proposals take inspiration from the Free Universities of the Low Countries, which were explicitly designed as institutions free from both church and state standing above communal divisions, as well as the Free University of Berlin, which was founded during the Cold War as a beacon of academic independence in a divided city and in stark contrast to the tightly controlled institutions of the Eastern bloc.

As the UK grapples with the legacy of 30 years of failed neoliberal social and economic policies while simultaneously struggling to emerge from the European Union, it is clear that Britain is divided in all sorts of new and complex ways. Enormous levels of regional and economic inequality are layered over with class divides, new forms of identity politics and communalism both within and across the devolved nations of the union. It is in this context that universities have taken a battering to their public reputation, as they have become increasingly associated in the public eye with control and regulation of intellectual life and acceptable opinion, as well as having compromised their cherished ideal of neutrality when many university leaders actively campaigned against Brexit. It is in this context that we need a new type of free university for a new century, which will help to renew universities’ compact with the public by enshrining a commitment to intellectual freedom rather than control. These new universities will in turn help to spearhead sectoral and professional renewal by acting as beacons of all-round academic excellence without the need to rely on the intensely micro-managed processes of the faux market, as embodied in league tables and Research Excellence Framework (REF), Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and Knowledge Exchange Framework-style exercises.

‘Given this Government’s commitment to enhanced public spending, scientific and technological renewal as well as the opportunity afforded by historically low interest rates, launching a publicly funded new-style free university would help to fold higher education into a vision of renewal not only for each of the devolved nations but also for the union as a whole. In this way, the universities could refurbish their public role by placing themselves at the core of the cultural and intellectual renewal of public life as we emerge from the European Union. 


  1. I have lots of dull administrative questions as to whether this is at all possible. Nominally, it’s possible for the UK government to set aside the different laws that apply to the four countries which would make this progressing on anything like the basis imagined here, but unlikely.
    I know that Jones & Cunliffe have an impressive belief in an all-powerful planning exercise run by government to determine a new tiered system of higher education, so picking the location for four lucky universities shouldn’t be beyond that – although good luck with the years it would take (just look at how long the incremental business of setting up IoTs is taking).
    Setting up a new university is complex, for it to be free it would have to have degree awarding powers ab initio (some more laws to override) and seemingly sit outside the quality code and the myriad of regulations that exist in the four countries. This is not quick. DfE have been ever so helpful to Hereford; given its scheme £23 million and they’ve not got a new engineering course going after 4 years.
    Then, having fully funded it (from the funds of the four countries?) are these equal in the four countries, or is the English one much bigger than the others? Then, it has no need to follow the policies of its home country or the UK. No need to have access targets, no need to conform to research council plans, no need to follow national pay scales?
    I found much to disagree with in the report for CIEO, but can’t see what this impossible dream adds to the debate.

  2. Stephen Shilton says:

    A nice idea but thoroughly impractical I fear. I’ve visited Free University in Berlin – a fantastic experience I might add.

    However, the writer seems to have little understanding of devolution. HE is devolved in Scotland, and therefore he needs to deal with the Scottish Government. I like the idea of true academic freedom, but I have a horrible feeling that if a government were to create one truly free university, it may well further reduce the amount of freedom in all the others. Thankfully in Scotland, we do not have the same level of government marketisation of HE, and with independence this would be more likely to diminish in my view.

  3. Mark Pennington says:

    Dear Philip,
    Many thanks for this piece and for your work with Lee Jones. I very much value the contribution you are making to public debate especially in highlighting threats to academic freedom. Ultimately though, I disagree with your analysis and conclusions. Here is why:

    I think you focus too much on marketisation and consumerism – as you yourself acknowledge, most of what is happening in the university sector is about the language of a ‘faux market’. There would be no fee caps in a genuine market for higher education let alone five year planning procedures such as TEF or REF. These are all attempts at top down state control of academic life which use the language of markets – instead of allowing real markets to develop.

    The alleged spread of consumerism does not in my view explain threats to academic freedom – those threats come from within academia itself – largely through the dominance of a particular type of leftist politics of the sort that predominates in most social sciences and humanities departments. Academia has for decades leaned left, but that has not been an obstacle to academic freedom and a broad pluralism of view which engages non-left perspectives. What may now be emerging as a problem in many institutions however is the way in which traditional social democratic academics have been supplanted by an ideological movement that tries to enforce a deeply illiberal form of identity politics. This is where the threat to academic freedom lies. It does not come from pandering to students as consumers.

    Most students hate identity politics- they regularly report laughably low NSS satisfaction scores with student unions on the grounds that they pursue this type of agenda (and their own political careers) instead of supporting students in practical matters relating to housing and their studies. What you have however, is an alliance between student union activists, academics who actively support identitarian politics or who do not oppose it, and university administrators many of whom share a similar world-view. This alliance operates in many universities and exercises a form of monopoly power over students – whether you view them as consumers or otherwise.

    In my view your proposals for free universities would do nothing to break down this monopoly power – instead they would reinforce it by making taxpayers support it. That would be the surest way to destroy what remains of public trust in institutions of higher learning.

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