It has arguably become fashionable in policy circles to dismiss institutional autonomy as merely special pleading on behalf of a sector that wants the right to be aloof, distant and disinterested whilst simultaneously receiving large amounts of public funding. At the same time, the traditional argument that institutional autonomy is a necessary prerequisite for academic or research excellence is under pressure in the face of the rise of the Chinese universities in global rankings, heavily controlled by the state as they are, and by the huge technological advances made by private corporations such as Google and Tesla.
But there is nonetheless a case to be made that institutional autonomy is more important than it ever has been. We have seen many of the conventions that make up the UK’s supposed constitutional checks and balances on executive power undermined over recent years. Parliamentary sovereignty, judicial independence, the independence of the civil service, the right of dissent and challenges in a pluralist democracy, and most recently the rule of law have all come under attack. Alongside those core democratic principles stands the institutional autonomy of universities, itself under threat.
Institutional autonomy enables universities to perform roles that are important in a 21st century liberal democracy, such as:
- Supporting wider democratic practices and the advancement of civil society and human rights;
- Providing a longer term view of the challenges that society faces to counteract short term electoral cycles; and
- Offering impartial and informed advice and challenge to help improve the government’s decision-making and hold the government to account.
There is also a key role for institutional autonomy in building the capacity for a country to support innovation. Governments do not have a monopoly of wisdom, neither does the Chancellor or does anybody else – that why it's very important that that institutions should have the freedom to experiment and to do new and different things.
If this is what universities could and should be for, then it is in the nation’s interest, even if not necessarily in the government of the day’s interest, to support the ability of universities to fulfil this role by ensuring that law, policy and regulation respects their autonomy.
Ideally, HE policy should ensure autonomy, and independence from government in the following respects:
- Organisational autonomy - the freedom to determine strategies, structures, leadership and governance.
- Financial autonomy - freedom to generate and allocate resources to deliver those strategies to be able to deliver those strategies, etc.
- Staffing autonomy - appointing the staff of their choice and on the terms and conditions of their choosing.
- Academic autonomy and freedom - what to teach, who to teach it to and how, and to decide the standards and quality of that provision.
Independence from government should not of course mean freedom from accountability, but accountability should be achieved through proportionate and limited regulation by government and by institutions themselves:
- articulating and delivering a wide concept of value for money
- being responsive to the needs of the institutions’ staff, students and other stakeholders
- operating transparently so that the activities, the choices and the decisions that an institution makes are visible and accessible to all.
- respecting the social licence to operate which requires universities to show they can be trusted to have the society's best interests at heart.
We need to move to a position where institutional autonomy so defined is not something that policymakers grudgingly “have regard to”, but is a fundamental principle on which higher education law, policy and regulation is built. Therefore, we need to think harder about the limits of what we mean by autonomy and why we want to protect it. Just asserting that it is important is no longer enough.
So what might be done to help advance the debate? At our recent round table we heard some great ideas from delegates.
Firstly, it should be recognised that government has a legitimate interest in the outcomes and outputs of the activities of universities that it funds. But, it has less of a legitimate interest in how universities go about delivering these outcomes and how universities operate outside those areas. This balance needs to be clearly reflected in policy and regulation.
Secondly, institutional leadership needs to work harder to make sure that the value of what the university does is apparent to wider society, and in particular how autonomy has enabled the university to do what it does. The benefits of autonomy to the nation need to be continually articulated and demonstrated. Institutions need to be proactive about this, rather than reactive and defensive.
If possible, the sector should speak in a single voice about the importance of autonomy, and wherever they can, institutions should collaborate with each other and with other key advocates and ambassadors to promote autonomy’s role in our democratic society.
Institutions need to start building a support base outside government, by showing that it is in the interest of communities to have strong independent institutions serving their needs. And they need to start making that case now even if it won’t necessarily have any impact on the next five or even 10 years.
Finally, efforts should be made to have a constructive discussion with politicians about what kind of autonomy the sector needs. At the same time institutions need to demonstrate that they are able to make necessary changes and address problems autonomously, before they are forced to, to show that they can be trusted with autonomy. Through this, it may be possible to develop a consensus with policymakers about the kind of long term legislative framework that is needed to support an engaged, accountable but independent sector, driving social and civic development, knowledge and research for future generations.
Jonathan Nicholls, Vice-Chancellor’s Delegate, FutureLearn at The Open University
“There never was a golden age when universities were truly independent of the state. Their longevity as institutions derives from their ability to foster the interests of the state and society while at the same time not being subservient to either. Today, the pressure to conform and to meet exigent requirements is intensifying. Mere assertion of a right to autonomy and independence is not enough. Universities need to make a stronger case of proof of the benefits that those values bring to the state and their local communities.”
Smita Jamdar, Partner and Head of Education at Shakespeare Martineau
“In my view institutional autonomy plays an important, if not always well understood, part in holding the executive to account and taking the long view to counteract short-term political expediency. It is a part of a system of checks and balances that ensures a stable, functioning liberal democracy, but it also underpins an ecosystem of sustainable and inclusive innovation and growth. Its importance is not universally accepted, however, and the challenge for university leaders, and indeed all of us who value it, is to make sure its benefits are shared, recognised and valued by the wider public so that they in turn see it as something that it is in the long term national interest to defend.”
Elizabeth James, Partner and Head of Education at Berwick Partners
“With so much uncertainty regarding COVID and indeed the UK’s position vis a vis Brexit, it is perhaps easy to focus on the immediate rather than consider the fundamental. Yet we do this at our peril. Institutional autonomy has long been an element of our democracy, but in times of rapid change it is often too easy for practices to shift which is to the detriment of any given institution’s ability to hold power to account and act in the interests of society as a whole. There is no question as to the need for institutions to be held accountable for their work; that too is part of a functioning state. However, one must keep at front of mind that institutional autonomy is not an esoteric concept; rather it is a practice that all within higher education must contribute toward.”
For more information please contact Elizabeth James, Partner and head of the Education Practice at Berwick Partners, specialising in recruiting academic and professional services leadership appointments across the Higher Education sector.