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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Jo Johnson: Higher Education and Research Bill

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Higher Education, Ministerial commentary, Universities


Writing in the Telegraph today, Universities Minister Jo Johnson set out the need for higher education reform and how the Higher Education and Research Bill will entrench in law institutional autonomy and academic freedoms.

Our universities are among our greatest national assets.

Underlying their enduring success are academic freedom and institutional autonomy - the ability to break new ground, debate new ideas and fearlessly challenge existing ones.

We have seen this week how passionately expert members of the House of Lords feel about institutional autonomy and academic freedom – and, on this point, we wholly agree.

The Higher Education and Research Bill, now making its way through Parliament, must – and will – clearly entrench in law these essential features of our system.

The Bill aims to breathe new life into our higher education sector by encouraging innovation and putting in place incentives to drive up the quality of teaching, not at the expense of academic freedom but in a manner wholly in keeping with it.

The Government is listening carefully to powerful arguments made during Committee Stage and understands the passions that these important questions arouse.

We must avoid, however, hasty attempts to incorporate into primary legislation unprecedented declaratory statements about the nature and purpose of universities.

While it had the best of intentions, the new clause promoted on Monday would inadvertently hem them in and stifle innovation.

Restricting opportunities for change, variety and diversity works against autonomy, not for it.

We want to uphold autonomy, but do so while updating a regulatory architecture designed in the early 1990s for a bygone era of public grant funding of tuition costs and tight student number controls that disproportionately benefited the socially advantaged.

I want to encourage more innovative higher education provision, catering to the aspirations of a new generation of learners of all ages and backgrounds, so that we deliver the skills necessary to keep our economy globally competitive.

High-quality institutions that meet rigorous standards for quality, financial sustainability, management and governance upheld by a new regulatory body, the Office for Students, will no longer need to be ‘validated’ by their rivals before they can award their own degrees.

As history tells us, every period of university expansion in this country has met with opposition. And the arguments against new entrants put forward today echo those aired more than a century ago when UCL – now a pillar of academic excellence – was dismissed as ‘a Cockney university’.

Similar opposition befell the civic colleges, Manchester and Birmingham among them, when they elected to transform themselves into red brick universities before the Great War, and could be heard again during the ‘plate-glass’ expansion of the 1960s.

The same arguments were also made in opposition to the 1992 reforms that allowed the Polytechnics to convert into a wave of new universities, enabling them to play their part in ensuring higher education was never again rationed for the benefit of the socially privileged.

We must be careful to distinguish between legitimate and shared concerns that the Bill should protect cherished institutional autonomy from self-serving arguments cloaked in the garb of principle.

As the Bill re-enters Lords Committee stage today, bear this in mind: those who would dig their heels in now ignore a central truth about our higher education system – our universities did not get where they are by accepting the status quo.

Students are crying out for new ways of learning. That’s why Dyson has received twenty times more applications than places available at their newly announced Institute of Technology.

We must also ensure that our universities are delivering for the students and families who invest so much in a university education – those paying £9,000 per year deserve value for money. The Bill before Parliament will deliver it.

It puts in place reputational and financial incentives to ensure that universities make the quality of their teaching as much of a priority as the excellence of their research.

While our higher education institutions are among the best in the world, research-based league tables tell only part of the story and we know that too many students have been dissatisfied with the quality of the teaching they have received.

Over 60 per cent of students feel that some or all elements of their course are worse than expected and, of these, a third feel that this is due to the teaching quality.

In a global market, a sector that does not pay greater attention to the quality of the educational experience risks being left behind. This represents a real threat to our higher education system.

Our reforms deliver on the new Teaching Excellence Framework we promised in our last Manifesto, for the first time linking teaching funding to quality and not just quantity – a principle established by a Conservative government of the 1980s for research funding.

We will not tell universities what or how to teach, but we will demand that their teaching delivers good outcomes, in the form of students who complete their degrees and progress to highly skilled employment.

The statistics show plainly that there is patchiness in teaching quality within and between institutions. It was a Conservative Government that introduced a research assessment framework in the 1980s and it is now time to extend the principle of funding on the basis of quality to teaching too.

We cannot afford to be complacent now. To ensure English higher education retains its world class status we must act. These reforms will keep the sector world class for decades to come.

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