Universities in the United Kingdom are exceptionally autonomous. The UK ranks among the top three countries and is part of the “high” group of higher education systems in all four areas of institutional autonomy. (Unless otherwise specified, the information presented here refers to England.)
English universities may freely decide on all aspects of organisational autonomy, including the selection, appointment, dismissal and term of office of the executive head, the appointment of external members to university governing bodies, the creation of legal entities and the internal structure of faculties and departments.
In financial autonomy English universities are equally autonomous. They only require the approval of a government agency to borrow more than a certain (rather large) amount. The ceiling under which universities in England must set tuition fees at Bachelor level can hardly be considered as restrictive in a European context.
With regard to staffing autonomy, the only constraint relates to salaries for senior academic staff, which are generally negotiated with unions. At the professorial level, such national agreements do not usually apply and higher salaries may be decided freely by the institution.
In terms of academic autonomy, overall student numbers are negotiated with an external authority. Universities cannot decide on quality assurance mechanisms and providers, as they are obliged to undergo institutional accreditation by the national quality assurance agency. The language of instruction can generally be chosen freely, although in Wales there is a sector-wide agreement to encourage and expand opportunities to study in Welsh.
Given the use of public funds for higher education and the high level of institutional autonomy, the level of public accountability of universities and appropriate regulatory requirements are being widely debated in the United Kingdom.