11 October 2016
In your 4 October editorial you argued strongly against the Government’s Higher Education and Research Bill, stating that it “opens the door to unacceptable political interference” and that it “must be resisted”. I would like to express my surprise at both the tone of this editorial and the inaccuracies contained within it. Although there are certainly proposals within the Bill that require further debate and scrutiny, equally there are a number that should be welcomed. Furthermore, there have been numerous opportunities for the sector to respond to Government plans: in the Green Paper consultation and through written and oral evidence to the Public Bill Committee, and discussions will continue as part of the standard parliamentary procedure.
Your editorial argues that the Bill overrides universities’ Royal Charters and destroys the fundamentals of academic freedom. On a factual point, the University of Cambridge does not have a Royal Charter. It was Pope John XXII who gave us formal recognition in 1318, and our privileges were confirmed by Parliament in 1571 through the Oxford and Cambridge Act.
For those universities that do have a Royal Charter, the proposed legislation does not “rip up an 800-year-old settlement” as claimed. A Royal Charter recognises an institution or group of individuals as a single legal entity but they are all different in the responsibilities and rights created. The Bill does not propose overwriting these varied charters. Indeed for the first time in Parliamentary legislation this Bill would recognise institutional autonomy, the principle of dual support and the diversity of the sector.
That is not to say we do not have concerns regarding some of the proposals and the potential impact of the legislation. The Bill introduces significant enforcement powers for the new Office for Students, and achieving the right balance between the body exercising such powers and the need to respect academic freedom is crucial to ensuring that freedom of thought and institutional autonomy are properly protected. Safeguards can, however, be provided by guaranteeing appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of the discharge of enforcement powers and the imposition of penalties. All legislation can be improved by debate and consultation, and our comments on the Bill are publically available (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmpublic/HigherEducati...).
The Bill need not be thrown out in its entirety in order to protect our academic freedom. At a time of great change what the sector needs is evidence-based debate and not an error-ridden call to arms.
L K Borysiewicz
University of Cambridge