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Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.
Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.
Ross Renton, Principal of ARU Peterborough, questions ministers’ approach to defending free speech on campus, but welcomes their efforts to outlaw essay mills.
There was news this week that universities in England could be fined and student unions sanctioned for failing to protect free speech under new legislation proposed by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. The new rules are to be overseen by a new “free speech champion”, who will also sit on the board of the regulator for Higher Education, the Office for Students. The proposals seek to ensure academics, students or visiting speakers who are no-platformed could sue universities or student’s unions, while institutions judged to be failing to uphold the laws could face a financial penalty from the Office for Students.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) for higher education has said it is concerned about some elements of the government’s proposals. In a statement, the OIA says plans for a new free speech champion to have a role in recommending redress for individual complaints about freedom of speech, including those raised by students, "could create confusion for students about the route through which they can pursue concerns relating to freedom of speech". The Guardian reported that the proposals have drawn criticism from former Education Secretaries Justine Greening and David Blunkett. With Estelle Morris stating “This is about looking for a change in behaviour and attitudes. These things are really, really difficult to legislate for. I get the feeling that the battle for hearts and minds needs to be won before you go in as heavy as this.”
In a THE blog, Dennis Hayes, Director of the campaign group Academics For Academic Freedom, argued that a national ‘great debate’ in England would be more effective than imposing free speech champions and threatening to fine universities that fail to uphold the new rules. In Independent blogs, Jason Reed, a Conservative sociology student at the London School of Economics, argued that contrary to Ministers' rhetoric, free speech on campus is not under threat, while Columnist Sean O’Grady asked whether there is any point to the reforms.
Whilst the extent of the issue is contested, it is clear the Government wants to raise awareness among the public and be seen to be taking punitive action. It does seem these proposals have been drafted before any constructive and meaningful dialogue between Government, sector bodies, students and universities. The unintended consequences of legislation could further erode the autonomy of universities. Surely these proposals would benefit from debate and scrutiny prior to any future legislation – if this really is a 40-year-old issue, then taking a little more time to get it right will be beneficial?
Degree fraud and essay mills have also been making the news again this week. Jisc claimed that eighty-five fake UK university websites have been shut down over the past five years as part of a government crackdown on degree fraud. The closures are the result of a much-needed purge of fraudulent websites masquerading as genuine universities, launched by the government in 2015 to safeguard the international reputation of UK universities, the Guardian reported. In a WonkHE blog, Jayne Rowley, Executive Director of Jisc Student Services, Prospects, explained why making essay mills illegal could help to combat other forms of degree fraud. As a former non-executive Director of Prospects, I was able to see the positive impact of their highly successful national verification service Hedd.
These are far from new issues within the sector, I remember early in my career asking the security team to remove these smiling-faced leafleters offering ‘essay support’ from campus and holding disciplinaries for students who had been hoodwinked by sophisticated fake degree and essay writing services – you could even select the quality of your essay to prevent suspicion. Each student would have their own, often heart-breaking reason for using these services. Many claimed it was out of desperation from dealing with complex personal situations. I also witnessed the appalling human cost of these services on students and their families, with so many promising futures prematurely halted.
I therefore welcome the terrific work the former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore is doing via a well-considered private member’s bill on essay mills. This seeks to make the operation and advertising of essay mill services illegal in the UK. In the THE, he affirmed that contract cheating was “a rot that infects the very discipline of learning and has the potential to damage academic integrity beyond repair”. Whilst this is a welcome intervention, this is a global online issue and I suspect it will need co-operation from the search engine providers to block these services and direct students to genuine help from their institutions.
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