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Baroness Wolf of Dulwich is a cross-bench peer and is Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College, London.

Should Parliament decide what counts as a university? Should it think about this now, as an election looms, and the current Higher Education Bill heads for its final votes? Yes, and yes. Because what counts as a university will, over the next decades, have huge consequences for the taxpayer, our skills base, and the sort of society we become.

A record number of amendments were tabled during the Bill’s passage through the Lords. The first to be debated, the first on which the Lords divided, and the first to pass, by a large majority, set out the characteristics that a university should possess.

That debate attracted huge interest for two reasons. The first is practical. Being a university, in England today, is a open-ended licence to charge the taxpayer. The second is moral. The nature of our universities defines our society.
The financing of higher education in England is increasingly dysfunctional and expensive, although the current Higher Education Bill doesn’t address this at all. Government has written an open cheque. It will pay fees for any and all ‘home’ students recruited to a first degree course, without limit. There are no academic requirements whatsoever – any UK (or EU) resident who signs up, qualifies for funding. If students are recruited who can’t cope, or drop out, there is no penalty for the institution. The more you recruit, the more the taxpayer provides. And while students are liable to repay the state, through the Student Loan Company, a very large proportion will never earn enough to do so.

Not all higher education institutions are universities – but ‘university title’ sends a powerfully attractive signal; not just at home but to lucrative international students. You attract more of the former and can charge more to the latter. Why else would Donald Trump have called his failed institution ‘Trump University’?

Most European countries have limited the number of universities, while developing a range of higher technical institutions. In England we have done the opposite, demolishing higher technical education and encouraging more and more non-technical degrees. And we have handed out university title very generously: 70 new universities since 1986, nine in the last three years, and plans to create more and more.

Given the costs, and the impact on our skills base, our legislature should surely concern itself with the sort of institutions being created. But the arguments go well beyond the fallout from flawed policies. Universities determine the course of ever more people’s lives, are the dominant source of ideas, and the repository and guarantee, we hope, of important values.

We should have a clear idea about what it means to be a university.  That idea should drive the way we both fund and regulate them.  And it is surely for our Parliament to define – not, as currently proposed, an unaccountable quango making ad-hoc decisions. Defining a university is not arcane: Switzerland, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are among those whose statutory definitions set a benchmark for quality.

As the Bill comes back to the Commons, the Government should take the Lords’ position to heart. And the Conservative Party should, in writing its manifesto, put the nature of a university at the heart of a higher education policy that needs a lot of serious attention.

10 comments for: Alison Wolf: Parliament, not a quango, should define what counts as a University

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