The Vice-Chancellor’s apprentice

How easy should it be to open a university?  We have had several articles in the last few days espousing the logic that the whole sector would be better if the Government released new providers from the anti-competitive business of having to prove that they can run proper courses before being allowed to award degrees.  We’ve had AC Grayling telling us the regulatory regime is Byzantine and Jonathan Simons complaining about the lack of a level playing field.   Paul Greatrix does a great job in imagining how you can cut through this.

The aspect that is apparently the problem is the notion that before a body can award degrees, it must have a proven track record before it is given that right by the Privy Council.  This is an exercise of a piece of crown prerogative which pre-dates every other piece of university regulation, which, apart from a few select examples, has required an apprenticeship.

Looking at the history, the admission of people to degrees was something that was held to be vested in the Sovereign or the Papacy.  Medieval universities made sure by getting permission from both – Glasgow University has a great example of the Papal Bull with Pope Nicholas V’s fervent desire:

that the said city may be adorned with the gifts of the sciences, so that she may produce men distinguished for ripeness of judgement, crowned with the ornaments of virtue and erudite with the dignities of the various faculties and that there may be an overflowing fountain of the sciences, out of whose fullness all that desire to be imbued with the lessons of knowledge may drink.

Obviously, writing off to the Pope ceased to be an option for the English a while ago (although the Archbishop of Canterbury retains his own special degree awarding powers as a vestige of that authority).   For post re-formation Britain an apprenticeship, in some cases lasting over 50 years, become the dominant model.

From “Fantasia” and “Fantasia 2000.” Entitled:

This precedent was broken in 1948 when University College Staffordshire sought to have a new curriculum, which it couldn’t fit to London’s external degrees, and obtained the right to a new kind of sponsorship, supported by three other universities.  This paved the way for the ‘new universities’ who were given degree awarding powers from the outset supported by an academic advisory council.   After that we returned to apprenticeships – CNAA or validating universities.

If we are serious about the controlled reputational range of British Universities – then we need to ensure that our qualifications adhere to both to the valid assessment of standards and an appropriateness of curriculum.  That’s what the post-Dearing HE system has given us.  For all the references to Robbins, it is the academic infrastructure of Dearing that has seen us through expansion of the sector in a good state.    The Green Paper will, no doubt, pick away at many of the parts of that infrastructure – but a crucial part will be the way that new providers are brought into the reputational range of the whole sector.  Sadly there are too many providers who opted for the HND route who have failed to adhere to the standards we would want – certainly in comparison to those who have validated or franchised provision from universities.   And who was regulating those providers?  BIS itself.

Nearly all our universities have been through an apprenticeship and it has given us the diverse sector we have.  Naturally, all those universities chafed at the restrictions at sometime or other, but it has worked – maybe out of fear of the sorcerer (even if Vice Chancellors no longer look like that).  Let’s see what robust mechanisms the Government has in store…


4 thoughts on “The Vice-Chancellor’s apprentice

  1. Surely the point of a university is that it does both teaching and research (broadly defined). So any institution that can’t do both is not, by definition, a university. Organisations can call themselves whatever they want, except “university”, if they are teaching-only institutions. There are no universities in the UK that do not have some research going on, so any private institution trying to become a university should be able to demonstrate that it can support that research as well as teach across a range of subjects.

  2. There was ceratinly a point when that was fully accepted as the consensus and that coincided with other consensuses about publicly funded universities. It hasn’t always been so, you can read Newman as being in opposition to the Humboltdian vision of teaching and research together, and some opposition to research as a core mission of the university persisted into the 20th Century.

    Recently, governments have unhinged research from teaching in deciding what a university is- in a mass system it might not be necessary. The question for Grayling and co, is that the minimum of four years they need to demonstrate being a decent place, has the advantage of slowing things down; it requires them to run the whole cycle through at least once, deal with problems appropriately, and persuade the awarding body that they know what they’re doing. By no means all the most recent universities have acheived research degree awarding powers yet.

    • Hi Mike – I guess this was a reply to my comment, though it posted as a separate comment.

      I accept what you are saying, and clearly the idea of what a university is or should be has changed a lot over the past 1000 years or so. But given that the *modern* notion of a university combines teaching and research, is that likely to change in the future? Would it be a desirable thing if it did so? The answer to both is, I think, “maybe, but it would be a retrograde step”.

      As for research degree awarding powers, that’s not a necessary requirement to do research in and of itself; staff at Northampton’s predecessors Nene College and University College Northampton were research active, and supervised PhD students, before we had research degree awarding powers, with Leicester awarding the PhDs.

  3. Pingback: The A Priori University | moremeansbetter

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