Are Universities Boiling Frogs?

Smita Jamdar, Partner and Head of Education at Shakespeare Martineau, asks whether government interventions are putting institutional autonomy at risk.

Are universities at risk of befalling the fate of the fabled boiling frog?

Are they able to spot, and avoid, the damaging, cumulative effects of a series of threats to their institutional autonomy?

Is it already too late?

Advantages of institutional autonomy

Universities are currently facing ongoing interventions from governments across all four UK nations.

Yet, a crucial feature of institutional autonomy is their degree of independence from government in several categories.

The European Universities Association autonomy tool asserts that universities must have:

  • Organisational autonomy – to determine their own strategies, structures, and leadership and governance
  • Financial autonomy – to have access to finance on terms that enable universities to decide how to spend it within the context of their own missions
  • Staffing autonomy – to appoint staff of their choosing, on the terms and conditions they determine appropriate
  • Academic autonomy – to decide what and how to teach, to whom, and to establish ways of assuring the quality of these matters.

There is evidence and international consensus that institutional autonomy is essential.

It positively correlates with a number of objectives that ought to be regarded as important in a 21st century liberal democracy:

  • The provision of high quality research and education that is widely accessible
  • The capacity to innovate
  • Support for democratic practices and structures
  • Providing a pool of human resources for civil society
  • Advancing civil and human rights
  • Providing a longer term view of the challenges and opportunities facing society, counteracting the inevitable short term focus that electoral cycles drive.

Supporting institutional autonomy

It is in the nation’s interests to support the ability of universities to fulfil these roles by ensuring that law, policy and regulation respects their autonomy.

But it is also the duty of universities to deliver these benefits to society. In that context, we acknowledge that there should be checks and balances on autonomy, such as:

  • Value for money – An obligation to ensure value for money, though far more broadly defined than recognised by policy in England
  • Accountability – A need for accountability on the part of institutions towards those who had a legitimate interest in their decisions and actions
  • Transparency – The activities of the institution are accessible and visible to all
  • Benefit our society – Recognition that all universities are dependent on a social “licence to operate” which requires them to have society’s best interests at heart.

Threats to institutional autonomy

However, there are a number of threats to institutional autonomy that potentially undermine the ability of universities to fulfil their potential to benefit our society.

Legislation has provided routes for governments to intervene much more in university affairs:

  • the Higher Education and Research Act in England
  • the Tertiary Education and Research Bill in Wales
  • the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act.

In England, the OfS has shown that it is prepared to override institutional autonomy, as HERA entitles them to do, but doesn’t require them to do.

For instance, the OfS pursued the government’s specific preoccupations about the sector, such as free speech, senior executive pay, and unconditional offers, irrespective of whether evidence suggested that these were significant issues or not.

This trend has been exacerbated by the interventions necessitated by COVID-19. These include “imposing” a moratorium on offer-making that lacked any statutory basis. More recently, a restructuring regime has been proposed that would entail ceding autonomy around academic matters to a very great degree.

Alongside these developments are the ongoing emergence of a “culture war” in which universities are often painted as being on the opposite (and wrong) side to government. This could create an environment where universities feel under pressure to act in ways that do not deliver the societal benefits set out above.

These threats to autonomy risk:

  • The diversity of the sector
  • Its capacity to innovate
  • Its ability to widen participation

They also create the unwelcome, and erroneous, impression that students and other stakeholders need protecting from institutions.

Protecting institutional autonomy

In response to these threats, there are several opportunities to protect institutional autonomy:

  • Stakeholder communications – Ensuring that an explanation of the role that autonomy plays in the success of each university is woven throughout relevant communications with internal and external stakeholders, including governing bodies
  • Alumni advocacy – Making sure alumni are able to support and articulate the benefits of an autonomous alma mater
  • Community advocacy – Ensuring that local communities experience the university’s presence as a positive in their lives and recognise this as a consequence of the autonomous choices of the institution
  • Senior leadership advocacy – Encouraging university Chancellors and other ceremonial representatives to promote the benefits of autonomy.

If the current direction of travel proceeds unchecked, there is a risk that institutional autonomy will be fatally undermined by incremental policy developments.

It is important that universities do what they can to demonstrate the benefits of autonomous institutions, both to the public and society at large. This will generate a movement to oppose the further erosion of this important feature of our higher education sector.

Smita Jamdar is Partner and Head of Education at Shakespeare Martineau. Follow Smita on Twitter.

1 Comment

  • Hugh Martin

    Really clear and well-written piece, Smita, which is also critically important. The semi-autonomous status of UK universities is a cornerstone of British higher education. It is not replicated in HE sectors in many other countries (including the USA) and it must not be given up lightly. Those of us working in international HE are often envious of the freedoms enjoyed by our UK colleagues; don't let these be eroded by government, quangos, regulatory oversight, or anything else.

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