“Total funding for higher education is increasing”, says Universities Minister
The Minister of State for Universities and Science has responded to criticism of the government’s attitude towards higher education by promising that “universities will have more cash per student”. In a wide-ranging interview ahead of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, David Willetts set out to assure students that the coalition government is investing in higher education in an effort to raise standards across the board – contrary to claims in some quarters that his department has cut overall spending.
Willetts sat down with The Mancunion against the backdrop of a poor showing for UK universities in the latest Times Higher Education (THE) world rankings, published in the first week of October. Of the 31 UK institutions included in the top 200, 18 saw a drop from their position last year, falling by an average of 6.7 places. In the face of a surge in the performance of emergent Asian universities, Willetts is clear about the challenges facing higher education in this country.
“I think that the biggest challenge is the quality of the teaching experience – and this applies to both domestic students and international students – to make sure that when they leave university they feel that they have learned a lot, that their minds have been developed as well as it being a wider, rich social and cultural experience. I want people to look back on university as three incredibly worthwhile years.”
Nonetheless, university leaders are thought to be concerned that further budget cuts are imminent at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Last month, the University of Manchester’s Vice Chancellor, Dame Nancy Rothwell, told The Mancunion that in her view the government is “under-spending on higher education” – a claim that Willetts refutes.
“Total funding for higher education is increasing”, he says unequivocally.”We are more than protecting, but actually increasing the cash going to our universities, and that’s why we can deliver on the improvements to the teaching experience, because universities will have more cash per student.”
“What there has been is a shift from teaching grants to fees and loans, so there is a saving for the Exchequer because these loans are eventually repaid, but without any reduction in the cash going to university. So it’s an incredibly good combination.”
“Of course, there are tough times”, he continues, “and if you look around public expenditure – because of the disaster in the public finances that we’ve inherited – we’ve had to get a grip on public spending. I know it’s controversial, but one of the effects of a shift to fees which students don’t pay up front is that the amount of money going to universities to pay for teaching is rising.”
As Willetts quite rightly identifies, his department’s decision to almost treble undergraduate tuition fees to £9,000 per year was – and remains – hugely controversial. The first wave of students paying the higher level of fees arrived in Manchester last month, and there has already been an observable impact as a result of the changes.
Two weeks ago, The Mancunion reported that a number of previously thriving halls of residence, including Allen Hall and Little Court, lie empty as a series of factors – including a two-thirds drop in the number of students opting to defer entry – saw a drop in the overall intake of University of Manchester students. Whilst he is at pains to point out that applications fell only slightly this year, I put it to Willetts that the headline figure of £9,000 might discourage some people from applying to university.
“I don’t believe it should”, he contends. “If you look at the figures, once you allow for the fact that there is a decline in the number of 18 year olds, because the birth rate was falling in the early ‘90s, there hasn’t been a significant fall… as understanding [of the new system] spreads around, I don’t see why anyone should be put off from going to university.” Indeed, he argues that consternation at the drop in the number of applications has been overblown – “there is always this sort of turbulence in the first year” – whilst suggesting that the plans have been misrepresented in some quarters.
“The language of debt itself is pretty misleading – [taking a student loan] is not like having a credit card”, he explains. “I think at the start there were instances where young people did sadly think they had to reach into their back pocket, or their families had to pay for their tuition. I think now most people understand that they don’t… the amount they pay monthly is falling, not rising. I think the way that the previous system was front-loaded on bigger repayments up front was an unfair burden on young people.”
Yet £27,000 in fees alone for a three year undergraduate degree strikes me as an eye-watering figure. I question whether degrees are as valuable today as they were when Willetts, who graduated from Oxford with a first class degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, was a student. “I think the hunger for university graduates is such that university degrees are as valuable now – for many, not for all – as they were historically.” However, a decade on from Tony Blair’s infamous aspiration that 50% of all young people should go to university, surely we need more people embarking on vocational pathways, rather than academic ones?
“I don’t think we should have a central government target, and there probably are some people who go to university who might have, looking back, found going into an apprenticeship a better option. But overall, my view is that there is a pretty deep-seated social and economic trend towards more people going to uni, and I don’t see that going into reverse. I think that is basically a good thing.”
Willetts’ responses are indicative of a department looking towards the future of higher education, rather than querying past policies. He is, therefore, relaxed about the prospect of increased marketisation in higher education. “Competition, above all in the quality of the student experience, is a good thing. It’s good for students. And I know that being a student is not the same thing as buying a car – and in that sense it’s not a consumerist experience – however a lot of the good features of consumerism apply.”
One of the principle ways in which higher education is set to evolve in the next few years is through the introduction of a set of newly-established private universities. Just as the government is determined to push its free schools agenda, Willetts is not afraid to show his support for a move towards privately run institutions.
“I think what will matter is the quality of the education, rather than the exact legal status of the institution”, he says. “If a former polytechnic can teach Law competently, with proper, quality assessment, and the students think they are getting a good deal… we mustn’t put ideology in the way of a good education for students.”
“The problem in Britain is that we take diversity and turn it into a hierarchy. My view is that there are different ways in which universities can be good, and one way of being good is obviously the prestigious, research intensive universities. Another way of being good is being a world class regional university, providing the kind of vocational qualifications you gain access to the professional jobs in the area. And that can also be done very well indeed… sometimes, the teaching at some of the less prestigious universities deserves more respect than it gets.”
Aside from higher education policy, The Mancunion was keen to quiz one of the most senior Tories at the Cabinet table on some tough years ahead. Last week Ryan Shorthouse, director of the Bright Blue campaign of which Willetts is a board member, suggested that “the best chance of a second term may well be another Lib Dem coalition”. Alas, Willetts refused to be drawn on the likely outcome of the next election: “What we’re aiming for, and what this conference is all about, is our being able to govern as Conservatives on our own. We’re aiming to win, and that would be in the best interests of the country. There is a real opportunity to win the next election, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”
Meanwhile, he echoed David Cameron’s message that the rich will have to pay their fair share of the burden as the government continues to tackle the deficit. “I think there’s been a more energetic crackdown on tax abuse under this government than ever before, and if you look at what we’ve done with increasing capital gains tax in some cases, it’s clear that richer people are absolutely bearing their fair share. Those that have that kind of income and wealth do need to contribute, and they are.”