I would not risk the accusations of hysteria that would rightly follow if I were to accuse the universities minister, Jo Johnson, of bearing even a passing resemblance to the Chinese president, Xi Xinping. But as Mr Johnson prepares to watch his higher education and research bill continue its passage through the Lords, I would say this to him: either you or Mr Xi understands the true value of an independent university and, whichever one it is, he does not have a brother called Boris.

Xi Xinping, naturally enough, understands the independence of universities as a threat and a growing one. Three weeks ago, he told China’s universities: “Adherence to the Party’s leadership is essential to the development of higher education.” Good luck to them in the international league tables with that weight hanging round their neck.

In this country, we ought to understand the independence of universities as an integral part of a delicate system that has produced brilliant academic success and a huge British export on a shoestring budget. I am not sure that politicians, even ones as thoughtful as Mr Johnson, have grasped how essential independence is in that mix. There is an awful arrogance about Whitehall sometimes. We have, by general consent, the world’s second-best higher education system. It is far from perfect, with, for example, too little flexibility between pure academic work and technical and vocational training. Yet, given the lamentable funding record of governments of every stripe, its quality is little short of miraculous. It seems particularly ham-fisted to turn the academic world upside down when universities face so much turbulence and uncertainty after the Brexit vote and the rhetoric surrounding immigration. Moreover, to give the impression that one goal is to inject a shot of entrepreneurial vim, so that universities can replicate the energy and outlook of – who shall we say, Philip Green? – seems unlikely to convince those who work in and study at our universities that ministers understand and care much about what they are doing.

This does not mean that universities should be immunised against change or competent management. Universities will change in the decades ahead. They may work in a variety of different ways with a greater spread of objectives. They should be left to explore their own mission and shape their own identity. Their integrity and autonomy should be preserved at all cost. Facing a leap in the dark, universities are told to trust ministers and civil servants to behave properly. Johnson says that he has “no intention of telling universities how to do their jobs”. But the bill that he recommends we swallow gives the secretary of state greater power than ever to direct the course of research.

Ministers are required only to “have regard” for academic freedom. It will be the minister, not an academic, who makes appointments to our research councils that make vital decisions about the focus and direction of academic research. Should we take all this on trust? At the very least, the government should allow a thorough review of the bill’s effects three years or so after it is enacted, to provide an opportunity to change things that are not working.

Worst of all is the power given to the Office for Students to revoke the acts of parliament or royal charters that have established our universities. How can it be right to allow institutions, some of very ancient standing, to be abolished with only weak parliamentary scrutiny? Did Thomas Cromwell write this part of the bill? There is much else that should be amended. The social sciences, for example, are absent from the list of research functions that should be supported. Finally, there is the artificial divide between research and funding, though in practice the two go hand in hand. Think of university museums, or those laboratories that provide both service and teaching facilities. The bill needs to be clearer about the organisations and programmes that straddle this divide.

All this and much more will confuse and irritate our universities. If only some of the energy that has been thrown into engineering this upheaval had gone into finding solutions to the problems created by Brexit and our crazy immigration policy. Alas, we appear to be stuck with a bad bill that, perhaps, the House of Lords can marginally improve.

Lord Patten is the chancellor of Oxford University

from Education | The Guardian http://ift.tt/2hFwD7T