Students will be reduced to consumers under the new Bill according to some criticsLouis Ashworth

The University of Cambridge has raised “significant concerns” about multiple aspects of the Higher Education and Research Bill currently moving through parliament. Among the University’s objections are the Bill’s potential threats to “institutional autonomy” and “academic freedom”.

The government claims that the proposals, unveiled in May, will address the growing number of so-called ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’, which offer their students minimal employment prospects after graduation, and help to eliminate an alleged shortfall of skills in Britain. The Bill will also require universities to release statistics on the contact hours afforded to students of each of their courses, as well as students’ gender, ethnicity, and income.

The University’s own concerns about the Bill were articulated in written evidence it submitted to a parliamentary committee. While it praised “the Government’s recognition of the importance of diversity in research and teaching”, it also highlighted numerous deficiencies in the Bill relating to oversight of co-operation between teaching and research, university funding, and the autonomy of the university.

In particular, the University voiced its worry that the new watchdog for universities in England that would be created by the Bill, the Office for Students (OfS), has been granted too much power over universities. It claimed that the Bill will allow the government, through the OfS, “to influence what subjects universities can and cannot teach.”

It further queried “whether the Bill provides adequate safeguards to ensure the OfS is properly accountable for its decision making”, recommending “appropriate parliamentary scrutiny over the OfS’s discharge of its enforcement powers”.

There was also strong criticism of the proposal that the OfS be made responsible for the regulation of standards of university degrees, which it calls “an unprecedented extension of powers” that “contradicts a cornerstone of the UK higher education sector”, namely what it identifies as the principle “that providers with degree awarding powers are responsible, as autonomous institutions, for the standard of their awards.”

The University also condemned proposals for the OfS to have the power to revoke the degree-awarding powers of educational institutions, arguing that such a decision should not be made without “a high level of scrutiny and proper accountability.”

The University did not mention the provision of the Bill that will allow universities to raise their tuition fees in its written evidence.

The Bill has also drawn criticism from elsewhere. On 21st September, 96 academics wrote a letter to the Financial Times criticising the sentiments of the Bill, arguing that it “entrenches the notion of universities as suppliers of courses rather than as educators, and of students as consumers.” Among the signatories were Professor E. A. Wrigley, co-founder of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure and former Master of Corpus Christi College.

In Parliament, Labour MP and former CUSU and NUS President Wes Streeting has tabled 30 amendments to the Bill.

Universities UK, an organisation that represents British universities, also raised concerns in their written evidence that the Bill will permit government interference in the provision and content of university courses, saying the Bill “gives the Secretary of State powers over the sector at a course level.”

The Russell Group of 24 elite UK universities also expressed fears that “a number of clauses around standards, authorisations in relation to university title and degree awarding powers and in how the new Office for Students (OfS) may exercise its regulatory powers” might jeopardise “academic freedom and institutional autonomy”.

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