Ex-min­is­ter scep­ti­cal of English higher ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing re­view

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Jack.grove@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Po­ten­tial re­forms to Eng­land’s stu­dent fund­ing sys­tem trailed ahead of the an­nounce­ment of the gov­ern­ment’s higher ed­u­ca­tion re­view could be po­lit­i­cally dis­as­trous if they are put in ef­fect, for­mer uni­ver­si­ties min­is­ter Lord Wil­letts has warned.

Speak­ing at an Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute con­fer­ence in Lon­don on 21 March, Lord Wil­letts (pic­tured be­low) ex­plained that many of the changes to stu­dent fund­ing sug­gested by min­is­ters as Theresa May launched a re­view of post-18 ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing last month were ei­ther po­lit­i­cally naive, con­fused or un­work­able.

In a speech at the Bri­tish Academy, which was at­tended by the re­view’s chair, Philip Au­gar, Lord Wil­letts said the idea of dif­fer­en­tial tuition fees floated by ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary Damian Hinds lacked a “co­her­ent frame­work”.

It was un­clear whether its ad­vo­cates wanted arts de­grees to be cheaper than sci­ence de­grees to re­flect the lower earn­ings of grad­u­ates, for in­stance, or more ex­pen­sive to di­vert stu­dents into other dis­ci­plines, said Lord Wil­letts, who was uni­ver­si­ties and sci­ence min­is­ter from 2010 to 2014.

The idea that “good uni­ver­si­ties should charge more”, pro­posed by some within the sec­tor, was also un­wise as it would rep­re­sent a “re­ver­sal of the pupil pre­mium” found in schools, as stu­dents from richer back­grounds would en­joy bet­ter re­sourced de­grees than poorer stu­dents, said Lord Wil­letts.

He also crit­i­cised the pos­si­bil­ity of in­tro­duc­ing a grad­u­ate tax, say­ing it would cre­ate a “brain drain prob­lem” by in­tro­duc­ing a “ra­tio­nale for the high-earn­ing UK elite to leave [the coun­try]”.

Pro­pos­als to “re­bal­ance” ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing in favour of fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion by cut­ting back sup­port for uni­ver­si­ties – as pro­posed by Baroness Wolf of Dul­wich, a mem­ber of the Au­gar re­view – would carry sub­stan­tial po­lit­i­cal risks, Lord Wil­letts added.

“The idea that it is a bril­liant so­lu­tion to re­duce the unit of re­source to 1.5 mil­lion first-time vot­ers is not a good idea,” said Lord Wil­letts, who added that “it is not go­ing to hap­pen”.

He also voiced scep­ti­cism about the po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fit of in­creas­ing the

thresh­old at which grad­u­ates be­gin re­pay­ing their stu­dent loans to £25,000 – a move an­nounced by Theresa May at the Con­ser­va­tive Party con­fer­ence in Oc­to­ber.

The pol­icy, which is es­ti­mated to cost £2.3 bil­lion a year, would not win many votes, Lord Wil­letts sug­gested.

“I some­times ask some of my for­mer col­leagues still in pub­lic of­fice if they have ever had a grad­u­ate come to a con­stituency surgery com­plain­ing about it – I never had one,” said Lord Wil­letts, who stepped down as an MP in 2015. “It is not a pow­er­ful griev­ance,” he added.

Lord Wil­letts said he was sur­prised by the ap­par­ent drive to ex­pand the num­ber of two-year un­der­grad­u­ate de­grees, say­ing that “quite a lot of stu­dents wish to have four years [ as un­der­grad­u­ates] be­cause they find it the most in­tel­lec­tu­ally stim­u­lat­ing part of their ed­u­ca­tion and want it to be longer”.

English stu­dents, said Lord Wil­letts, “start too soon, spe­cialise too soon and…get into the labour mar­ket ear­lier than any­where else”, adding that “a proper de­bate would be how to fi­nance a broader, longer and slower” univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion.

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