A thousand wasteful weeds are set to bloom in Jo Johnson's HERB gardenby Alison Wolf / December 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, argues that our universities “act like bouncers,” stopping people entering their club. He also likens them to an aggressive hamburger chain: specifically, McDonald’s trying to stop Byron Burgers from setting up nearby. His Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) purports to tackle this supposed misbehaviour. It has cleared the Commons at speed.
In fact, some 70 new universities have been established in England since 1986, with nine in the last three years alone. This is way above average for western Europe: the Netherlands, for example, hasn’t created any new universities in 40 years. But presumably the minister thinks ours are the wrong sort of new university.
The 120-page bill, now before the Lords, lays out Johnson’s solution: a vast new government regulator, with unprecedented powers. The “Office for Students” will have powers to bestow and remove the title of university, and the right to award degrees. It will be able to override parliamentary statutes as well as universities’ current Royal Charters. It will serve as the judge both of the standards of degrees and the quality of university teaching, and be able to suspend “providers” (universities and others). And it will be able to impose, without obvious limits, monetary penalties on any institution deemed to be in breach of conditions that it has laid down.
Moreover, many of its activities will be carried out under “delegated” powers, which can be exercised without any need to refer back to a minister, let alone submit to parliamentary scrutiny. I don’t suppose for a moment that this government has immediate plans to close down a university, whether it is Oxford or Gloucestershire, Lincoln or York. But whenever powers are created, they affect behaviour. Their very existence will make universities more biddable and timid.
Higher education in England is now largely funded from student fees, many paid upfront by the government-funded Student Loan Company, before students repay some, though often not all, of the debt. The government commitment here is open-ended. For any and each EU undergraduate that a university enrols, the state will provide three up-front payments at £9,000 a year.
The new regulatory behemoth is charged with making it easier for new institutions to award degrees from…