Labour and the Liberal Democrats have collaborated in the House of Lords to rebuff the government’s plans to make it easier for for-profit colleges to become private universities, the Observer reports.
The vote, expected to be take n in the house of Lords this week, would foil the government’s plans to attempt “full-marketisation” of the sector, which opposing peers say would lower standards and damage the UK’s reputation for running many of the best universities globally.
The peers – and university leaders – also say the reforms would destroy the cherished autonomy of UK universities and allow political interference by ministers into how they are run, teach courses and conduct research.
On Sunday, in a further blow to the higher education and research bill, of which the plans form a part, Lord (Chris) Patten, the former Tory party chairman and now chancellor of Oxford University, described the reforms as “hamfisted”, coming at a time when universities were already facing massive challenges as a result of the Brexit vote and changes to immigration policy.
Referencing the attempts to turn the sector into a marketplace, being championed by universities minister Jo Johnson, Patten said ministers appear to have little regard for, or knowledge of, the university system, commenting in the Observer:
“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] Philip 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.”
The peers – who are expected to be joined by a number of Tories when the bill begins its committee stage in the Lords on Monday 9 January, have tabled amendments which they will force to a vote – demanding that universities remain “autonomous” bodies working for the public good, that they must remain free to criticise government wherever and whenever they see fit, and that they be barred from striving for profit.
Labour’s shadow higher education minister Lord Stevenson told the Observer:
“This bill is an attempt from the government to run a market experiment through the bloodstream of our university system, and a classic case of understanding the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
There is far more to higher education than financial transactions and bottom lines, including the ongoing contribution made to society and business through the application of new knowledge and expertise. Our amendment calls on ministers to recognise all of this and enshrine in law the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech, alongside protecting the sector’s ability to act as society’s conscience.”
Ministers say the bill is designed to widen choice for students and to deliver value for money in the age of tuition fees. They argue that it will “increase competition and choice in the higher education sector, raise standards and strengthen the United Kingdom’s capabilities in research and innovation”. New entrants will be encouraged “by making it easier for new high-quality providers to start up and achieve degree-awarding powers, and subsequently secure university status”.