Universities urged to have the ‘cojones’ to stand up for themselves on free speech and sexual misconduct

Education publisher Pearson saw a big boost to its English-testing business as borders reopened and people started travelling again after Covid (PA) (PA Wire)
Education publisher Pearson saw a big boost to its English-testing business as borders reopened and people started travelling again after Covid (PA) (PA Wire)

University leaders must have the ‘cojones’ to stand up for their institutions and deal with issues including freedom of speech and sexual misconduct themselves, a former education secretary warned.

Charles Clarke, who was secretary of state for education under Tony Blair, said universities are “big enough and substantial enough” to take on issues including mental health, grade inflation and harassment without being micromanaged.

Currently the Office for Students regulates universities in England, but Mr Clarke said it is unnecessary and could pose a threat to their autonomy.

Speaking to the House of Lords Industry and Regulations Committee, Mr Clarke said the answer is “for universities to get more cojones themselves in standing up for themselves.

“The weakness here is university leaderships have to be much more proactive and engaged than they are. I think there’s a serious weakness in many university leaderships where they say ‘what’s the government going to say next?’ or ‘what’s the regulator going to say next?’

“That has happened in many other areas of public life and I think that’s very dangerous.”

The Office for Students, which was set up in 2018, is currently holding a consultation on whether relationships between staff and students should be banned and looking into mandatory training for students and staff, as well as ‘bystander training’ for potential witnesses.

Mr Clarke said: “The grounds for intervention by the OfS have been extended to include unexplained grade inflation, harassment and sexual misconduct, mental health and wellbeing, freedom of speech and increasing the diversity of provision.

“I think some of those are simply covered by the law of the land and should be dealt with by the law of the land without having a separate regulator…actually every university is big enough and substantial enough - like other major employers in the country - to take responsibility for those kind of issues themselves.”

He added: “I would say the conduct of universities should be for universities and not be for this regulator.”

He also accused universities of acting like a “cartel” by all charging the maximum tuition fees and said the OfS has not tackled this problem.

Instead, the university agenda has been set in a kneejerk way in response to “drama that has been preoccupying newspapers”, Mr Clakre said, adding: “If there is constantly a panic about some aspect of universities about free speech or something else in the pages of the papers there is an immediate kneejerk response.”

Jo Johnson, who was minister for universities when the OfS was set up, said having a universities regulator is in the national interest. But he admitted he would have liked the OfS to do more to tackle grade inflation.

He said: “The idea that we don’t need regulation for a sector of this importance for our economy is to my mind fanciful.”