Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

A Matter of Trust: Unchaining the Academy's Engines of Discovery

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

A Matter of Trust: Unchaining the Academy's Engines of Discovery

Article excerpt

In enshrining academic freedom and institutional autonomy, the higher education bill creates new protections, Jo Johnson says

Academic freedom is a principle with which few would disagree. The freedom to interrogate, discover and learn upholds the UK's prosperity and delivers breakthroughs that can change the way we live and work. Nowhere is this principle more revered and more vital than in universities, which have stood the test of time and become world leaders in large part due to their independence and autonomy.

As I stood in the gallery of the House of Lords last week, listening to the seven and a half hours of debate and discussion for the second reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill, the value that the sector places on academic freedom and institutional autonomy became clearer than ever. There is no disagreement with government on this crucial point. These values must remain paramount if universities are to remain engines of scientific discovery, bastions of free speech and educators of the workforce of tomorrow.

That is why at the heart of the bill is a commitment not only to protect institutional autonomy and academic freedom, but to go further and enshrine these values in legislation so that they are under no doubt. Indeed, there are provisions in our reforms to create protections that, until now, simply have not existed.

Take the new regulator for the sector, the Office for Students, for example. This will be a body at arm's length from government, similar to the situation with the existing Higher Education Funding Council for England. It will have no powers to interfere with the content of courses or what universities teach, and for the first time we are legislating for explicit restrictions governing the ways in which the secretary of state may influence the regulator. This will mean universities will be free to make their own decisions, without interference, on the composition of their governing bodies, the content of their courses, the manner in which courses are taught, their admissions of students and their appointment of academic staff.

These are the things that our universities know exactly how to do and it is only right that these freedoms are protected. And we are going further, by handing back trust to providers with proven high quality, whether old or new. Why should we, as we do now, ask universities rated in the top 10 in the world to submit thousands of documents to a regulator every six years, or impose student number controls on a university when it comes top for student satisfaction? …

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