Higher Education and Research Bill – Letter to my MP

Science is Vital this week launched a campaign to seek amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill 2016. The bill is a rather dry and procedural piece of legislation but hidden amongst its many sections and schedules are real threats to the autonomy and independence of UK universities and to the capacity of the research community to guide the research agenda.

The particular issues at stake are summarised on the Science is Vital website and laid out in more detail in a piece I wrote for the Guardian. We hope as many people as possible will write to their MPs to voice their concerns and ask for the necessary amendments to be made. Writing letters is always a bit of a chore so in case it might help some to get over the activation energy barrier, here below I am posting the letter that I have sent this evening to my MP, Mr Bob Stewart, the member for Beckenham. Please feel free to re-work for your own missive.

Dear Mr Stewart

Higher Education and Research Bill 2016

I write as your constituent and as a professor at Imperial College to express my grave reservations about several aspects of the Higher Education and Research Bill 2016, which is currently before Parliament.

As written, the bill removes long-standing legal protections of the autonomy of UK universities and research councils that have been vital to the health these institutions and to the tremendous strength of the UK research base. It is crucial that the bill be amended.

The issues at stake are rather complex, which I think explains why it has taken some time for concerns to bubble to the surface. I have laid out my arguments about the major weaknesses of the bill in an article published online this week in the Guardian.

In short, the bill seriously undermines important academic freedoms of universities by giving the Secretary of State the power to give guidance on what courses may be taught, a power that is amplified by creation of an Office for Students with the authority to remove the university status of institutions. On the research front, the bill concentrates further power in the hands of government by giving the Secretary of State the authority to create or abolish research councils and to redirect their research remit. Such decisions will not require consultation or parliamentary scrutiny.

I understand the practical reason behind this shift of power – to enable flexible decision-making in reshaping higher education and research – which on the face of it seems sensible enough. But the loss of parliamentary scrutiny is nevertheless deeply worrying. The present minister Jo Johnson may not have any intention of abusing these powers – and indeed he has tried to offer some verbal reassurances. But who is to say what his successor might do? It would be wiser to build protections into the legislation from the outset.

The key amendments required can be summarised as follows:

  • Remove the provision (Part 1, Sections 2(2) & 2(4)) allowing the Secretary of State to give guidance to the Office for Students on what courses may be taught by universities.
  • Change the provision (Part 1, Section 43(1)) allowing the Office for Students (a body appointed by the Secretary of State) to revoke the right of institutions to grant degrees and retain the name ‘university’, so that each such decision requires parliamentary assent.
  • Change the provision (Part 3, Section 87(5)) allowing the Secretary of State to create or abolish a research council, or to alter their remits without parliamentary assent.

Without these amendments there is a real risk that this Parliament will preside over a serious weakening of the independence enjoyed by our universities and our research base. As a university professor, clearly I have a conflict of interest in this matter, but this is not special pleading. Important cultural institutions are at stake – as well as the national interest.

While the academy might occasionally have butted heads with governments on a range of issues over the years, I hope you will agree that such disputes are an essential part of the life-blood of an open democracy. Ideas have to be tested to destruction if sound decisions about the best interests of the country are to be made.

I would be grateful if you could find the opportunity to relay these concerns to the Minister for Universities and Science and, if possible, to communicate them on the floor of the house.

I would be more than happy to meet in person to discuss these issues in greater detail.

Yours faithfully…


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