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The contested rise of ‘institutional autonomy’

  • 15 February 2024
  • By Gill Evans
  • This post was kindly authored for HEPI by Gill Evans, Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge.
  • This piece is the first part of two on the topic of institutional autonomy. The second part will be published tomorrow.

The Higher Education and Research Act of 2017 (HERA) asserts that both the Secretary of State and the Office for Students ‘must have regard to the need to protect the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers’. HERA s. 8 defines this autonomy in terms which have been accepted since they were defined in the Robbins Report.[1] These allow providers to decide their own syllabuses, choose which students to admit and determine who to employ as ‘academic staff’. 

There is now an enormous range of ‘higher education providers’. Is it appropriate that they should all enjoy such institutional autonomy? Questions are being asked. The National Audit Office (NAO) has published an Investigation into student finance for study at franchised higher education providers (DFE HC 387). It records that ‘almost two-thirds of franchised providers are not registered’ with the Office for Students.  The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is also conducting an inquiry.

Both the NAO and the PAC have conducted previous inquiries into the category of ‘alternative’ private providers of higher education for much the same reason, that they were admitting inappropriately-qualified students in order to gain income from the Student Loans Company loans they brought with them, and providing neither acceptable courses nor appropriately qualified lecturers. In the Commons on 5 December 2013, the Rt Hon David Willetts noted that ‘the number of students going to alternative providers has increased dramatically, and in order to maintain budgetary controls, we have introduced further limits on the numbers’, though he argued that these were ‘worthwhile courses’. Between 2010 and 2014-15 the number of alternative providers rose from 94 to 122. The resulting increase in the national cost of student loans prompted a National Audit Office investigation as early as 2011, [2] with others to follow in 2014-15. A Public Accounts Committee report on ‘alternative providers’ published in February 2015 acknowledged that the Department had ‘pressed ahead with the expansion of the alternative provider sector without a robust legislative framework to protect public money’.

Under HERA, powers to register ‘higher education providers’ and grant degree-awarding powers and university title passed to the Office for Students.  The OfS has launched investigations into the quality of Business Courses at eight providers but of course only including providers on its Register. It had listed more than 400 ‘registered providers’ by the end of 2022 when it published its ‘typologies’. This broke down their characteristics in terms of their ‘very different sizes, income sources, subject mixes and student characteristics’.  That gave an indication of syllabus choices (‘subject mixes’) and choices about the admission of students (‘student characteristics’) but little information about the range of qualifications expected among their academic staff.  The entitlement of all these providers to institutional autonomy was not being questioned but the unregistered ones lie outside this system of regulation. Everything therefore depends on the care taken by franchising providers to assure themselves of their fitness.

The history of ‘institutional autonomy’

The insistence on the importance of institutional autonomy has a long history. It could be taken for granted while Oxford and Cambridge were the only English universities. They had invented themselves at the beginning of the thirteenth century as corporations (universitates) in the form of medieval trade guilds. They admitted students as their apprentices, set the requirements for them to attain the gradus of Bachelor or Master of Arts and their ‘academic staff’ consisted of their MAs. They needed no royal charter (though Cambridge belatedly gained one, Oxford never did.)

The advent of London’s King’s College and University College and the degree-awarding-only University of London began to adjust assumptions in the first decades of the eighteenth century, when a royal charter was felt to be essential. More challenging to the concept of university autonomy were the first legislative intrusions, promoted by a series of Royal Commissions, leading to the University of Oxford Act (1854); the University of Cambridge Act (1856) and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act (1877).

The first Royal Commission met with resistance when it inquired into Oxford in 185O.  Relying on legal opinion that the Commission was ‘not in any respect illegal or unconstitutional’, it urged the University to cooperate. [3] A Petition to the Queen, approved by Oxford’s Convocation of its MAs on 21 May 1851, insisted that the University was being put in an impossible position. It must either ‘give up’ its rights and liberties or ‘decline obedience to the Commands of Your Majesty’. [4] The Privy Council met on 17 July and advised the Queen to reject the petition. [5] Again and again and once more with the Oxford and Cambridge Act of 1923, compromise was arrived at. The two Universities could frame their own Statutes, but the permission of the Privy Council would be required. Privy Council consent became the normal expectation as the universities multiplied: the redbricks and the ‘plate-glass’ and the ‘post-1992’ former polytechnics. That continued to seem reasonable enough as public funding for universities was established from 1919.

In a speech at the Woolwich Polytechnic on 27 April 1965 Anthony Crosland identified two ‘kinds’ of higher education institution. In the ‘autonomous sector’ were the universities; in the other fell the ‘public sector, represented by the leading technical colleges and the colleges of education’.  Crosland called for the creation of ‘a vocationally-oriented non-University sector which is degree-giving and with an appropriate amount of post-graduate work with opportunities for learning comparable with those of the Universities’ but giving ‘a first-class professional training’. This represented a departure from a focus on the ‘academic’, but it was not seen as of their esse that this second class of institution should enjoy autonomy.  

In debate in the Lords on 31 March 1976 Lord Winne-Jones referred to Anthony Crosland’s ‘famous Woolwich speech’ in which he had urged ‘that the polytechnics ought to be taking up a lot of the strain of the universities and that there ought to be expansion of the polytechnics’. Baroness Seear, herself a long-serving academic, stressed that to protect their autonomy universities ‘must stand apart from the day-to-day political activities and anxieties, apart from Governments and apart from the administration of the country as a whole’.  Crowther-Hunt saw the autonomy of the universities as ‘absolutely crucial for the kind of society in which we live here’. Lord Robbins spoke in the debate, remembering a remark of R. H. Tawney:

My dear Robbins, I do not think you can exaggerate the advantage which this country enjoys by so many of its inhabitants having had at least a smell of the university.

However, Lord Annan described the polytechnics as a ‘non-autonomous sector of higher education’.

In the 1980s there were 29 polytechnics and in 1985 more than half their students were on degree courses with a vocational and technological emphasis. If it could be argued that they were doing essentially the same job as universities, it no longer seemed appropriate ‘for polytechnics and other colleges predominantly offering higher education to be controlled by individual local authorities’. In the White Paper Higher Education Meeting the Challenge (1987), the plan was for them to be given corporate status, with appropriate governing bodies and able to employ their own staff and own their estates:

The Government considers that the new framework described in this White Paper points decisively to allowing polytechnics, if they wish, to adopt a university name or to include it in their titles. Any such name changes would require approval by the Privy Council to ensure consistency in approach and no duplication.

Suitable criteria would need to be ‘drawn up’, which would ‘need to be considered alongside the criteria for the granting of degree awarding powers to institutions other than polytechnics, but will not necessarily be identical’.  

These new universities would become:

free-standing corporate bodies under boards of governors. Local and regional industry and commerce will be strongly represented on the boards. We want industry and those colleges to work more closely together. Industry will find it more attractive to place contracts for consultancy and research.

 The autonomy of these new-style institutions was nevertheless seen as appropriate. On 3 November 1987, with the Commons debating Government Expenditure, Kenneth Baker had his say as Secretary of State:

Nine million pounds is being made available in 1988–89 to enable polytechnics and colleges to assume responsibility for managing their own affairs.

There was already legislation covering the constitution and conduct of such corporations in the Education Reform Act (1988), s.124, with a Schedule. The Act set out the ‘principal powers of a higher education corporation in England’. These were to provide higher (possibly alongside further and secondary) education and ‘to carry out research and to publish the results of the research or any other material arising out of or connected with it in such manner as the corporation think fit’. ‘Higher Education Corporations’ maintained by local education authorities were defined by an Order of 1988. [6]

When the polytechnics became universities under the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 they had no charters. Their status as universities depended on the legislation which created them as publicly-funded statutory corporations. They had powers to admit students, to set their syllabus and to grant both taught  and research degrees; they could appoint staff as they chose. However, any change to such a university’s Statutes would still require the consent of the Privy Council.

[1] The Report of the Committee on Higher Education  Chaired by Lord Robbins (1963).

[2] Regulating financial sustainability in higher education, Session 2010-11, HC 816, National Audit Office, March 2011.

[3] Oxford University Archives, NW 8/2 (58)

[4] OUA, NW 8/2 (93).

[5] OUA, NW 8/2 (76).

[6] Statutory Instrument 1988 no.1799.  

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