Published on:

Heavy-handed regulation will deter innovation

My Times column on UK university policy:

The government’s higher education bill will run a gauntlet of opposition starting today in the House of Lords, where many members are chancellors, fellows or other panjandrums of the grander universities. Some criticisms will be self-serving and wrong: the bill has good features. But in one central respect, critics are right. This is nationalisation. The bureaucrats of the Department for Education have long wanted to get more control of universities and this bill finally grants their wish.

Britain has some of the world’s best universities, second only to America. The chief reason is that they have been almost as autonomous as the great private universities of the Ivy League. This is for three historical reasons. First, thanks to the Bill of Rights of 1689, they escaped the centralised control that continental universities experienced from first the church and then the Napoleonic or Bismarckian state.

Second, in 1919 when they faced financial ruin and were rescued by the government, British universities were nonetheless allowed an unusual degree of self-government: public money normally brings far more central control. Third, the fees revolution has brought at least some consumer pressure to bear. The OECD says fees have made British universities successful without damaging social justice.

The key problem the bill sets out to solve is the closed-shop nature of the higher-education sector, which is indeed an issue. A cartel of institutions, paying their vice-chancellors huge salaries, is generally untroubled by competition from upstart new entrants. The plate-glass novelties in the 1960s were supposed to introduce a wave of radical experimentation. Instead they aped the older institutions, faithfully copying their faults as well as virtues.

The incumbents often behave badly towards new entrants. For instance, the London College of International Business Studies has become a good higher-education institution with a degree top-up programme validated by a Swiss university. But it has searched in vain for a British university to validate its degree programmes since 2011. In one case it completed a successful Quality Assurance Agency review only to be jilted at the altar by a newly appointed pro-vice-chancellor. Le Cordon Bleu, the world’s leading culinary institute, offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in other countries, but cannot do so here.

These are just two examples; I don’t rest my case on them, but they are illustrative of the many institutions that would invigorate the higher-education sector if allowed in; it is mostly snobbery that keeps them out. The Ucas system inevitably directs students towards members of the cartel.

Yet the Department for Education has chosen to gloss what is in effect a power grab as a liberal move. The new system of registration will be the first time the DfE has regulated the entire higher education sector, whether or not an institution receives public funding. The new Office for Students (which will surely soon be known as Ofstud) was described by Lord Waldegrave — mixing Hindu and Judaic metaphors as only a fellow of All Souls can — as a centralised behemoth of a regulator in a juggernaut of a bill. It will be able to abolish any university: Cambridge, say. Seriously. At present these powers would doubtless be in safe hands; but do we really want such a hostage to fortune lurking on the statute books? As Baroness Wolf points out, just having that power will enable the quango to put pressure on an institution.

The justification for central control is that if we are to let new entrants into higher education, then we must have the power to abolish fake universities. We don’t want Trump U here. But mission creep is inevitable. Ofstud will evolve, as Ofsted did in schools. Just as the principal anxiety in a head teacher’s life is the Ofsted inspection, and how to game it, so vice-chancellors will obsess about gaming the new Teaching Excellence Framework.


It already happens with the Research Excellence Framework. Universities begin planning for the next REF as soon as the last one is finished, and while some of this planning is desirable — pressing low-quality researchers to do better or leave — academics are often seconded to work almost full-time for several years on the REF. As Lord Hennessy put it at the second reading of the bill, academics already spend too much time on the plumbing, rather than the poetry, of scholarship. And much of this plumbing isn’t even connected to anything as useful as a drain or a water supply. It’s plumbing for plumbing’s sake.

This reform will not address the deeper problems afflicting higher education, which are intellectual rather than administrative. It may make them worse. Yes, new entrants will ginger things up in some areas; and yes, it is right to recognise good teaching as well as good research, but Ofstud’s invention is unlikely to help students identify where brilliant courses taught by inspired professors lie concealed within generally mediocre universities. As Ofsted shows, certification tends to obscure differences between institutions.

Moreover, the bigger problem is that universities are losing touch with real life, as they did (except in Scotland) in the 18th century. They have pockets of genius, especially in the hard sciences, but they are also inflexible, navel-gazing, self-serving, not politically diverse and antithetical to free speech. Many creative thinkers are now not in universities.

University bosses regularly cave in to “snowflake” student demands for “no-platforming”, “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” against “micro-aggressions” (such as teaching Plato). Ranking universities on their attitudes to free speech is not in Ofstud’s remit; rather, with it measuring “student satisfaction”, the problem may get worse. Two years after the bloody attack on free speech on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, both Bristol and Manchester universities’ student unions have forbidden the satirical magazine from being sold on campus, lest it fail the “safe-space” policy. So much for “Je suis Charlie”.

Nor will Ofstud do anything to combat the ideological purging of universities, chronicled by Professor Jonathan Haidt of New York University, founder of the Heterodox Academy. He says that as recently as 1996 in psychology departments left-wing/progressive professors outnumbered those with right-wing/libertarian views by four to one. Today the ratio is 17 to one. “Very few people know just how radically the professoriate has changed in the last 20 years,” he said in a recent lecture. “Undergraduates are exposed to less political diversity than any other generation, except in the 18th century when universities were divinity schools.”

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times