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Institutional autonomy: does it need an ‘academic community’?

  • 16 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 second part of two on the topic of institutional autonomy. The first part was published yesterday and is available here.

The arrival of the ‘alternative provider’

In 1997 the Dearing Report saw diversity in British higher education institutions as an advantage ‘especially in providing for student choice; in programme and pedagogic innovation’ and ‘in the ability of the sector as a whole to meet the wide range of expectations now relevant to higher education’. Alternative providers began to be created in a variety of legal forms, but they were ‘private’ rather than publicly-funded.

In 2011 a White Paper, Students at the heart of the system, proposed a revised ‘regulatory régime’, in which new kinds of provider of higher education would have greater freedom about what they wanted to do or to be. It was taken for granted that it should include the conventional principle of institutional autonomy. The Commons debated ‘Higher Education’ on 28 November 2012. David Willetts spoke as Minister for Universities and Science setting out the Government’s intention to stimulate further competition in the sector by widening access to university title for smaller higher education institutions with only a majority of their students needing to be registered on degree courses (include Foundation Degree courses) or engaged in higher education at all. On that basis, having taken advice from HEFCE, he had been able to forward ten institutions to the Privy Council for approval as universities.

Publishing its Second Report in July 2012, the Lords’ Science and Technology Committee said it had ‘received substantial written evidence on the recent HE reforms’. According to the Government, it added, a fundamental principle of the HE system was that HEIs – including the new ‘alternative’ ones – were:

autonomous, self-governing institutions. It is for them to make their own decisions about the courses they provide; their admissions policy; to implement their own funding strategies and to make the necessary decisions to ensure they are responsive to student choice and that their institutions can continue to flourish.

The requirement for a ‘community’ of academic staff

A requirement for a ‘cohesive and self-critical academic community’ had been prompted by the Lindop Report (1985).[1] It had been borrowed by Keith Joseph, in a Written Answer to the House of Commons on 17 March 1986, at a time when it was not yet agreed that the polytechnics should become universities. It remains important. As he put it:

the most effective safeguard of an institution’s academic standards is the existence within it of a strong, cohesive and self-critical academic community.

In 1999 such a provider had to have a ‘well found, cohesive and self-critical academic community that demonstrates firm guardianship of its standards’. When the Department for Business, Innovation and Skillspublished Taught Degree Awarding Powers and  Research Degree Awarding Powers, Guidance inSeptember 2015, it maintained the ‘overarching requirement for degree awarding powers’ dating from the 1980s, that ‘an institution needs to be a self-critical, cohesive academic community with a proven commitment to quality assurance supported by effective quality and enhancement systems’.

The wording continues to be relied on. It was repeated in the Commons on 15 September 2016 during the framing of the Higher Education and Research Act of 2017, when Jo Johnson said that a university must bring together ‘a body of scholars to form a cohesive and self-critical academic community’. He added that the majority of its students should be ‘studying to degree level or above’ and that ‘teaching at such an institution’ should ‘be informed by a combination of research, scholarship and professional practice’. Not of the esse of a university he thought were ‘extracurricular activities and experiences offered by higher education institutions—sporting groups, arts groups, associations of all kinds and exchange opportunities’, even if ‘they can be as much a part of a student’s education as traditional lectures’.

The idea of a ‘self-critical community’ of academic staff as first framed depended on the expectation in the 1980s and 1990s that academic staff would normally be appointed to permanent ‘teaching-and-research’ posts. They tended to stay in their universities for many years and to form such ‘communities’ of research-active individuals with specialist expertise entitling them to set and maintain the institution’s standards. That has changed with growing ‘casualisation’ and the use of fixed-term contracts making such long periods of service not so usual.

Among the alternative providers, many have limited numbers of academic staff.  I noted in an earlier article that:

Three quarters of alternative providers (75 per cent) employed ten or fewer full-time equivalent staff. Seventy seven per cent also reported using sessional or freelance staff to deliver one off or a small number of sessions on HE level courses. The majority of alternative providers had a least one full-time equivalent member of teaching staff (82 per cent).

 Among those that did, over half (56 per cent) had at least [but often only] one member of staff who was research active .

Jo Johnson had promised in 2016 that the forthcoming Office for Students’ (OfS) ‘registration conditions’ would ‘include academic track record’. On that assumption, he stressed that academic staff must be able to teach and research without interference. However, HERA is generous in its definition of the ‘providers’ who are to make the choices which comprise institutional autonomy. The OfS has freedom to set its own Conditions of Registration. To count as ‘higher education providers’ eligible for OfS registration ‘higher education providers’ may – and a majority do – offer their higher education courses only at Levels 4 and 5. OfS will register providers without degree-awarding powers or ‘university title’, and may include ‘academies’ for 16-19 year-olds and Further Education Colleges. The Further Education and Training Act (2007) s.19 permitted FE colleges (but only FE colleges) to award their own Foundation Degrees. Some FE colleges can award their own degrees. Of the 228 Further Education Colleges in England, 153 provide Foundation Degrees and (83%) offer undergraduate and higher degree courses.

The present record-keeping omits the providers acting on franchises from registered providers which are now the subject of mounting concern. Can these properly claim institutional autonomy under HERA if they cannot fulfil the longstanding expectation that higher education providers will have an academic community qualified to ‘guard’ their standards?

[1] Lindop report, , “Academic Validation in Public Sector Higher Education” (1985) Cmnd. 9501.

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1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    My answer to ” Can these properly claim institutional autonomy under HERA if they cannot fulfil the longstanding expectation that higher education providers will have an academic community qualified to ‘guard’ their standards?” would be NO.

    The HE sector requires urgent Reform, particularly with regard to registration with Ofs, alternative providers and franchised providers.

    Institutions delivering under graduate degrees at level 6 and above should be brought together as a distinct and special group. They would not be required to do research as a condition of entry to the group but those not doing any research wouldbe in a sub category.

    This group alone, would be able to describe themselves as a University, award degrees and have autonomy.

    At the next level would be those delivering the majority of their courses at level 4 and 5. They would be classed as “X” – with a new name. Their awards would not be called degrees.

    They would not have independence. They would be able to deliver qualifications above level 6.

    They would focus on delivering skills. There would be National Standards and a National Curriculum for most courses that would be taken by students who would be seeking public sector jobs.

    There would need to be much thought given to where Degree Apprenticeships would fit into the model.

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