In British university leadership circles, one particular view has become commonplace: that any and all higher education legislation is prima facie an attack on institutional autonomy and a statement of intent by government to micro-manage the system.
The debate sometimes doesn’t get as far as assessing the details of the legislation: the act of legislating on its own is unacceptable, irrespective of content.
There are shades of this in the responses to the Scottish government’s planned higher education legislation. For example one of the government’s proposals is to provide in a new statute that the position of university principal should be identified (but not named) as “chief executive officer”.
That has been described by representatives of one university, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph, as a “telling and very worrying indication of the degree of control over universities that is being sought”.
That response and comment could reasonably be described as particularly bizarre, since a clarification of an executive role gives no opportunity of any kind for government intervention or control.
Law-making and autonomy
The truth is, of course, that legislation in this or any sphere is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. It depends on the purpose and content of any proposed regulation.
Nor is this in any way restricted to higher education. The UK has an extensive framework of companies legislation, regulating corporate organisation and action – yet few would suggest that this interferes with the freedom of companies to trade independently. The question is not whether legislation is unacceptable per se, but whether it reflects and protects a legitimate public interest without interfering improperly in autonomy.
The Scottish proposals
The Scottish government’s proposals are intended to implement recommendations made in 2012 by the review that I chaired on higher education governance. The report made it clear that institutional autonomy should be a key principle of the higher education framework, alongside academic freedom.
But we also recommended that there should be a regulatory framework that assured transparency and openness and gave due recognition to the interests of the stakeholders in higher education. Universities are autonomous bodies, and should be. But their autonomy should not shield them from legitimate expectations that they engage with staff, students and external partners, or from the need to behave in an accountable manner.
None of this is about government control. None of our recommendations, and indeed none of the proposed elements of the government’s planned legislation, would give any power to ministers to interfere in the running of institutions. Indeed the government has made it clear that it has no wish to exercise any such powers.
It is of course perfectly in order to have a debate on the merits of the legislative proposals, and there is nothing wrong with people being sceptical about the details. But it is also right to expect that the assessment of these proposals should be based on analysis and evidence, and should wherever possible avoid hyperbole.