The government’s controversial plans to make it easier for new profit-making universities to award degrees have been rejected by the House of Lords.
The defeat follows criticisms of the higher education and research bill from Oxford college principals and senior academics, who claim it threatens academic independence by “advancing an ideologically driven marketisation” of the universities sector.
In reaction to the success of the amendment, one of over 500 which have been tabled, Oxford Chancellor Lord Patten told Cherwell: “Heaven knows what will eventually emerge [of the bill] but it is likely to be very different then. We will see what happens back in the Commons.”
Patten intervened last week, calling the bill “ham-fisted” and threatening “the true value of an independent university” in an article for The Observer.
Speaking to Cherwell, Mansfield Principal Baroness Kennedy, a Labour peer, said she would support the amendment to the bill to prevent “the whole underlying marketisation of higher education.”
Kennedy compared the bill’s plans to make it easier for new institutions to offer degrees, become universities and make a profit from student fees, to Donald Trump’s attempts at entering the higher education sector in the USA.
She said: “America went down this road of letting businessmen set up private profit- making universities and it has led to many scandals of poor quality and exploitation of students as we saw with Trump University which led to Trump being sued.”
Her comments were mirrored by Wadham Warden Lord Macdonald, a Liberal Democrat peer. He warned that the bill risks “advancing an ideologically driven marketisation that will make standards the servant of commerce.”
He told Cherwell: “Of course it’s true that students, who now pay large sums of money for their education, deserve fi rst class teaching. This Bill, and the new bureaucracies it creates, will do nothing to encourage that.”
Patten also raised fears that plans to create an ‘Office for Students’ could threaten the ancient autonomy of Oxford, Cambridge, and other universities.
Macdonald said: “It is essential that our universities retain their autonomy and academic freedom from government control. This is key to their integrity and to the respect that they command world wide. But the Higher Education Bill threatens all this by placing universities more directly under the direction of Whitehall”.
Kennedy said: “I want reassurances on the face of the bill that government will preserve the Haldane principle that politicians do not interfere in choices for research.
“I understand and support efforts to improve teaching, as some universities neglect student teaching, but we have to protect the Oxford system.”
The bill seeks to implement the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which would operate through the National Student Survey (NSS). This week OUSU encouraged students to boycott the survey.
The decision in the Lords follows student campaigns against the bill over the past months.
In a statement to Cherwell, Eden Bailey, OUSU VP for Academic Affairs, said: “As the uproar from the House of Lords demonstrates, the heavy criticism of the government’s HE Bill is not unique to students.
“From academics to university chancellors, those with experience in the sector believe the Bill threatens everything from access to Higher Education, quality of teaching, attractiveness of British universities to international students, to British universities being able to secure vital funding for research.”
Professor Ian Walmsley, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Oxford, said to Cherwell that the bill “presents both opportunities and risks for UK university research.”
While praising the bill’s attempts to “join up” research, he warned that “there are risks in implementing changes to a system that already delivers more influential research per pound spent than any other in the world, while any reduction in the independence of the formerly separate research councils must not come at the expense of their ability to support ambitious discipline-specific research.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Education insisted that it was “listening carefully to the views of students, universities, academics and parliamentarians”.
She said: “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.”