The Privy Council has a role in areas of higher education, having responsibilities both under the Royal prerogative and by statute.
Older (pre-1992) universities operate under a Royal Charter, which sets out their overall constitution, and statutes, which give more detail as to how the university should operate in practice. The Privy Council is responsible for advising Her Majesty on universities’ proposals to amend their Charter, and itself approving amendments to the statutes.
A university wishing to make such amendments to its constitution is advised to approach the Privy Council Office informally once it is reasonably certain what changes it wishes to make, but before formally agreeing the changes, so that informal consultations can take place with the Privy Council’s advisers. Following a formal resolution by the university and submission of the textual amendments, the Privy Council formally considers the proposals which are normally approved by Orders in Council (Charters) or Orders of Council (statutes). The formal submission should take the form of a signed and sealed resolution, and three copies, as well as an explanatory memorandum on the purpose and effect of the changes. An electronic form of the amendments should also be provided.
Most newer (post-1992) universities and certain other higher education institutions operate under an Instrument of Government and Articles of Government. Any amendments to these documents need the approval of the Privy Council.
The Privy Council is also responsible, under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, for approving the use of the word ‘university’ (including ‘university college’) in the title of a higher education institution, and may also approve an institution as competent to grant degrees.
A number of appointments to governing bodies of Chartered universities are made by the Privy Council. In making such appointments, the Privy Council is concerned to see that due account is taken to include women and those from ethnic minorities among the candidates, with a view to a balanced representation on the governing body as a whole. However, Privy Council appointments are expected gradually to be phased out in consultation with the universities during the next few years.
The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (commonly known as the Dearing Report) made a number of recommendations in 1997 and the Government published its response in 1998. As a result some changes have been made in how universities are run, eg smaller and clearly identified governing bodies. In addition, the title of ‘university college’ is available not only to colleges which are fully part of a university but also to higher education institutions with the power to award taught degrees.
In Scotland, older universities operate under Royal Charters, while certain newer higher education institutions have governance documents which are the subject of statutory instruments. The Privy Council approves changes to both types of constitution. The very old Scottish Universities have Ordinances which are approved by the Privy Council under the Scottish Universities Acts.