Ongoing UK Research Problems (5) – Private Universities

(October 17th, 2017) Independent of Brexit uncertainties, Jeremy Garwood reports on a number of other UK government policy changes and plans that are already changing the UK research labscape.

Well before the unexpected result of the Brexit referendum, the UK’s Conservative government had been planning for major changes to the organisation and funding of scientific research and universities. In May 2016, the government proposed a new bill incorporating recommendations from the so-called Nurse review on UK research. However, despite the Brexit referendum in June 2016, there was to be no postponement in the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) through the UK parliament. This surprised many academics since, as soon became evident, if the UK went ahead and left the European Union, it would severely disrupt the UK’s current system of research and higher education, for example, affecting the recruitment of students and researchers from the EU, and cutting access to EU research funds.

Some commentators interpreted this determination to press ahead with HERB as evidence that the government’s real intention was to continue with the neoliberal transformation of UK public services, in this case by disrupting higher education through “a radical programme of marketisation and privatisation”. For Nottingham University’s John Holmwood, HERB aimed to complete the radical transformation of higher education that had first been proposed by the Government in 2011. In particular, HERB proposed to allow for-profit ‘providers’ to have access to the full range of tuition fees and to have the title of university, with degree-awarding powers. It sought to speed up the process by which they gained such recognition, creating what the government called ‘a level playing field’, yet “private providers are relieved of obligations to conduct research or to contribute to their local communities. At the same time, they are allowed to put existing universities with those functions under direct competitive pressure.”

Lee Jones agreed that the Bill’s “overriding mission is to lower the barrier to ‘market entry’ into higher education by private, for-profit providers. Private companies – even those lacking any prior educational experience – will find it much easier to attain the title of ‘university’ and issue degrees in their own name”.

Much of the UK’s inspiration for these for-profit universities comes from the US, but one doesn’t have to look very hard to see the negative effects of similar changes in US higher education (here and here). Even the current US President, Donald Trump, has had his own for-profit university, aggressively selling expensive degree courses whose educational value has been openly questioned, resulting in a legal settlement.

As described in part 3 of this series, HERB legislates for the merger of Innovate UK (the UK’s innovation agency) with the UK’s seven existing research councils to create a new single regulatory office for research, called UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Since the UK’s scientific research is already under the control of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, this change simply reinforces a strategy to make public research more ‘outcome-oriented’ and concerned with economic impact.

However, HERB now separates scientific research and university education by creating a new regulatory office for university education – the Office for Students. Holmwood notes that this new separation is necessary to allow for the entry of the for-profit, teaching only institutions, i.e. private universities that do no research. The Office for Students will hold the statutory responsibility for quality and standards, approve new entrants to the sector by managing the Register of Higher Education Providers, and also the awarding of university title and degree awarding powers.

In parallel with the Research Excellence Framework (REF), first held in 2014 as a means of ranking the relative research output of UK academics, the assessment of the quality of teaching in universities will rely on an exercise currently branded as the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF). The first TEF reported its results in June 2017, rating university teaching as being of Gold, Silver or Bronze quality. It has already caused controversy because some of the more research-intensive universities (members of the Russell Group) did not get top teaching ratings, e.g. the Universities of Liverpool and Southampton, and the London School of Economics, only got Bronzes.

The opposition to HERB from researchers had focussed on the loss of research independence as symbolised by the loss of Royal Charter status for the research councils (described in part 4). Now, protests by academics focussed on the proposed introduction of private universities in the UK. Students and lecturers marched through central London voicing their opposition against government plans for an “ideologically led market experiment” that would open up UK higher education to the likes of Trump University and leave students facing escalating fees.

Despite these protests from researchers and students, the Bill progressed unhindered through the House of Commons (where the Conservative government had a majority). However, in the House of Lords, the UK parliament’s second chamber, there was strong opposition (see Part 6).

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Pixabay/Capri23auto

Last Changes: 11.10.2017