Jo Johnson is Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, and Member of Parliament for Orpington.
Just before Christmas, I received a short letter from Sir James Dyson. With characteristic modesty, one of our greatest living inventors thanked me for “jolting” him into helping tackle our chronic shortage of engineers with the suggestion he set up a new higher education institution of his own.
His fledgling Institute, he told me, was 20 times oversubscribed for its initial places. This demand highlights how important it is that we unleash the capacity of innovative entrants to invigorate our higher education system.
The excitement over the Dyson Institute for Technology underscores the extent to which students are crying out for new ways of learning and also the capacity of new entrants to bring into higher education learners of all ages too often ill-served by existing providers.
The story of the expansion of the sector by new providers is the story of widening participation in higher education and Dyson is true to it. Of his applicants, 18 per cent are female, higher than the sector average for engineering courses.
Britain has some of the world’s best universities, second only to the US. But there is an urgent need for innovation, particularly in the form of flexible programmes with strong employer engagement offering faster routes into work than the traditional three-year residential degree programme.
For too many high quality new institutions able to do just this, however, the path to degree awarding powers is blocked by inherently anti-competitive requirements that force them to find a competitor who will ‘validate’ their provision before they can issue their own degrees.
This cartel-like restriction, which shapes new entrants in the mould of incumbents, is akin to Tesla needing the approval of BMW or Mercedes Benz before it can compete with a new self-driving saloon, or to Byron Burger having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant.
Our reforms, now being debated in the Lords, will change that. We will stop existing universities from acting like bouncers, deciding who should and should not be let into the club, and break open a closed shop that for too long has set the rules of the game in its own interests.
High-quality institutions that meet rigorous standards for quality, financial sustainability, management and governance upheld by a new regulatory body, the Office for Students, will no longer need to be validated by their rivals before they can award their own degrees.
Every period of university expansion in this country has met with opposition. And the arguments against new entrants put forward today echo those aired more than a century ago when UCL – now a globally recognised pillar of academic excellence – was dismissed as ‘a Cockney university’.
Similar opposition befell the civic colleges, Manchester and Birmingham among them, when they elected to transform themselves into red brick universities before the Great War, and could be heard again during the ‘plate-glass’ expansion of the 1960s.
The same arguments were also made in opposition to the 1992 reforms that allowed the Polytechnics to convert into a wave of new universities, enabling them to play their part in ensuring higher education was never again rationed for the benefit of the socially privileged.
As the Higher Education and Research Bill continues through Lords Committee stage, bear this in mind: those who would dig their heels in now to oppose change ignore a central truth about our higher education system – our universities did not get where they are by accepting the status quo.
As technology evolves, so will the needs of our economy.
This Bill will make it easier for a new generation of institutions to cater to the aspirations of a new generation of learners and deliver the skills necessary to keep our economy globally competitive, while maintaining the high standards that underpin its international reputation.
It will also ensure that ensure that our universities are delivering for the students and families who invest so much in a university education. Those paying £9,000 per year deserve value for money and this Bill will deliver it.
It will enable us to deliver on our manifesto commitment to introduce the Teaching Excellence Framework, which will put in place reputational and financial incentives for universities to make the quality of teaching as much of a priority as the excellence of their research.
We will not tell universities what or how to teach, but we will demand that their teaching delivers good outcomes, in the form of students who complete their degrees and progress to highly skilled employment.
The statistics show plainly that there is patchiness in teaching quality within and between institutions. It was a Conservative Government that introduced a research assessment framework in the 1980s and it is now time to extend the principle of funding on the basis of quality to teaching too.
One thing, though, will not change through these reforms and that is our commitment to institutional autonomy and academic freedom, the essential attributes for the enduring success of any system of higher education.
This Bill is no grab for control of an autonomous sector.
I want to make it absolutely clear that we have no intention of telling universities how to do their jobs. The Bill not only respects institutional autonomy but enshrines it as a clear principle in how Government will engage with the Office for Students.
That’s why we have clarified in the legislation that the Government will not have the ability to tell the OfS to prohibit or require the provision of particular courses. Nor can it try and compel institutions to do the same.
Nor will the OfS, as some have mistakenly suggested, be able to shut down our existing institutions on a whim. It would only be able to take such decisions in the most extreme circumstances and any such decisions would be subject to challenge through the courts.
The Bill also ensures that the OfS, when carrying out its functions relating to access and participation, has a duty to protect the academic freedom of higher education providers.
The OFS’ governing members will be drawn from a range of backgrounds to ensure the body is supported by the knowledge and expertise critical to delivering its mission, and informed by representation that reflects the diversity of the sector’s providers and students.
This is a Bill that consistently recognises and protects that autonomy. And it does so while removing a regulatory system from a bygone era, and replacing it with framework that can truly respond to the challenges of the 21st Century.