Lord Patten, the Chancellor of Oxford University, has joined a growing cross-party revolt in the House of Lords over the government’s controversial Higher Education and Research Bill.
Writing in the Observer, Lord Patten described the plans as “ham-fisted”, coming at a time when universities were already facing challenges as a result of the Brexit vote and changes to immigration policy.
Patten, who was once Conservative Party chairman before becoming Chancellor of the university in 2003, compared the Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson, to Chinese premier Xi Jingping in seeking to implement further state control over the university sector.
He accused Johnson of a lack of understanding of “the true value of an independent university”.
He wrote: “To give the impression that one goal is to inject a shot of entrepreneurial vim, so that universities can replicate the energy and outlook of – who shall we say, [former BHS owner] Phillip Green? – seems unlikely to convince those who work in and study at our universities that ministers understand and care much about what they are doing.”
Patten’s intervention comes as members of the House of Lords seek to amend the white paper, which opponents claim risks the “marketisation” of the universities sector.
The bill, which begins passing through the Lords on 9 January, would make it easier for new institutions to offer degrees, become universities and make a profit from student fees. Ministers say the bill is designed to widen choice for students.
Patten also says that the plans to create an ‘Office for Students’ could threaten the autonomy of Oxford and Cambridge universities, created through their ancient royal charters.
He wrote: “How can it be right to allow institutions, some of very ancient standing, to be abolished with only weak parliamentary scrutiny? Did Thomas Cromwell write this part of the bill?”
The bill also seeks implement the Teaching Excellence Framework, which would rank universities as gold, silver and bronze.
According to OUSU, the Oxford University governing body has voted to join the scheme, which would allow the highest ranking universities to impose higher student fees. OUSU joined 15,000 protesters in a rally against the Higher Education bill in November.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education told Cherwell: “We want more young people to have the opportunity to access a high-quality university education, and the measures proposed in the Higher Education and Research Bill are critical to making this possible.
“The Bill does not take away the Royal Charters of any of our Higher Education institutions. What it does do is protect and enshrine the autonomy and academic freedom of these institutions in law. And it puts students at the heart of the system, with the Office for Students making universities rightly more accountable to their students so they get the best value for money, alongside the new Teaching Excellence Framework to help raise the quality of teaching and improve graduate outcomes.
“Since its introduction in May, we have been listening carefully to the views of students, universities, academics and parliamentarians and have tabled amendments to the Bill based on their feedback.”
Oxford University has been contacted for comment.