The government faces a huge cross-party revolt over controversial reforms to Britain’s higher education sector that would make it easier for new colleges to become universities.
Labour, Lib Dem and crossbench peers in the House of Lords have banded together against the Higher Education and Research Bill, slamming it as an attempt to “marketise” the sector.
The group, led by former Tory part chairman Lord Patten, say the changes would cause standards to plummet, damaging the UK’s reputation for running many of the world’s top universities.
They have also accused the government of attempting to undermine the autonomy of institutions by allowing ministers to interfere in how universities teach students and carry out research.
Writing in the Observer, Lord Patten, who is also chancellor of Oxford University, said to introduce such proposals while universities face such uncertainty thanks to Brexit was “ham-fisted”.
“To give the impression that one goal is to inject a shot of entrepreneurial vim, so that universities can replicate the energy and outlook of – who shall we say, [former BHS owner] Philip Green? – seems unlikely to convince those who work in and study at our universities that ministers understand and care much about what they are doing,” he wrote.
Peers have tabled a number of amendments to the bill, demanding that universities should not be allowed to become profit-focussed but should retain their right to criticise the government.
However, ministers have argued that the proposals would benefit students, allowing them to chose from “a wider range of high-quality higher education providers” by making it easier to set up new universities.
Universities minister Jo Johnson said: “Our ambition is to drive up the quality of teaching in our universities to ensure students and taxpayers get value for money and employers get graduates with the skills they need.
A Department for Education spokesperson told the Guardian the bill would “protect and enshrine the autonomy and academic freedom of these institutions in law. And it puts students at the heart of the system, with the Office for Students making universities rightly more accountable to their students so they get the best value for money.”
The legislation, which was passed by MPs in November, reaches committee stage on Monday.