An Interview With Universities Minister David Willetts

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David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science visited the University of Southampton Friday January 30 to officially open the University’s new Mountbatten building and announce £7.2m of investment in research. Students at the University grilled the MP on the government’s plans for the future of higher education…

The government told us that only in exceptional circumstances would Universities be charging £9000. How can the government say that when actually, as the picture is slowly unravelling, most will have to charge around £9000?

It would be a great pity if £9000 [in annual fees]became the norm. We did say that £9000 would be exceptional, not the norm. There were several reasons why Universities should not and will not go up to £9000. One is that, as proposed fees get higher, Universities are going to have to have more and more ambitious and far-reaching proposals on access. We want to see Universities, especially research intense Universities like this one [Southampton], broadening their access. Secondly, there will be alternative providers that may well come in with lower fees. They [Universities] will have to be very careful about how their offer compares with, for example, HE (Higher Education) at a local FE (Further Education) college where people may see that the fees will be significantly less. So there’s both an access requirement and a competitive challenge.

You say that you think Universities will charge different levels, but last time the fees went up to £3000 Leeds were the only university to charge less than £3000, and they now have a financial deficit of £67million a year. So now they’re charging the upper limit. History shows that Universities will charge the upper limit regardless, not only in exceptional circumstances. Can you clarify your opinion?

I recognise that was the experience in 2006. That was when the Labour government didn’t mean to charge £3000, they actually wanted to charge £5000. There wasn’t really scope for divergent fees then, because the £3000 was covering their costs. We estimated that in order to replace grant income, on average, fees would be in the £7000-£7500 range. You don’t need to go up to £9000 to cover your costs, or compensate for loss of income. In fact, we will be putting pressure on Universities to hold down their promise.

Do you not think that if prices go up, expectations will go up as well? If Universities are to provide more to compensate for the steep increase in fees, surely they’ll need to charge more to fund it?

If Universities have got a really distinctive proposition, then they may go higher. The crucial thing is that students are not having to pay this upfront. They’ll only pay back this then they’re earning more than £21,000 [per year]. One of the problems with the original fee increase was that it wasn’t totally clear where the money went. This time round, we’re going to keep a much closer eye on it. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important that the market is opened up for new people to come in, including FE colleges, precisely so people can have a sense as to what exactly universities do in respect to money.

How do you ensure that students who will be paying significantly more than we do are actually getting more?

We are trying to develop kinds of indicators that Universities will have to publish. We are ultimately talking about students as consumers. My view is that any university that wants to go up will have to put on its website that if you’re thinking about coming to study Electronic Engineering or whatever, exactly how much time you get with academics per week, how many seminars there are, how crowded the seminars are, what the academic response time is when you have submitted your work, who is available via e-mail to answer your questions, when you can reasonably expect your questions to be answered. I want to empower students. When people are paying 6, 7, 8 or £9000 a year for this experience, there are bloody well going to be consumerist about it. [They should ask] ‘What am I getting for my money?’ Universities really should be far more explicit than they have in the past about what they are doing, and it’s absolutely right to hold them to account.

So Universities now are setting their fees for 2012. Those students who will be coming in then will now be picking up the prospectus, how do you feel about those students who will be let down on all sorts of things because we seem to be doing this retrospectively?

I recognise it’s a tight timetable. In an ideal world we would’ve done things in a different order, we would’ve had a white paper and these decisions would be down the track. But we had to get on with the savings. We are working very fast to get all the key elements in place. By that I mean the final access agreement; the national scholarship programme, which I have begun discussing with representative bodies including the NUS; and of course, the Hefce (Higher Education Funding Council for England) Grant for individual Universities, so that Universities can then put all that together and set their fees. They should be able to do that well before the key stages of the prospective students’ decision processes. They’ll be visiting Universities this summer and putting their applications this autumn, so information will be available well before the crunch decisions that young people will have to make.

What measures are being put into place to make up for the loss of Aimhigher? How can you ensure Universities will be encouraging wider access to all Universities, not just recruiting for their own?

This is one of the things we will be putting forward in the access agreement. I must check this in the draft letter, but I believe, I certainly intended, that the access agreement is supposed to signal that your bench marks of performance are absolutely what you are doing to get people to other Universities, not just your own University. So if Southampton University runs projects with schools in Hampshire, and as a result of that someone applies who might not otherwise have done so, to go to the University of Birmingham, that’s an achievement. That’s why we’ve got a combination of inputs and outputs in the draft of the access letter.

We’re trying to get Universities, through the access agreement, to deliver programmes that are like the Aimhigher scheme, not simply focused on the individual University.

Do you think that Universities will take that up considering that’s not their predominant aim? They’ll want to try and attract students to their own University, how do you think they’ll go about addressing that balance? If I were a University and I was trying to get people to pay more fees, I’d want them to come to mine and I wouldn’t want to promote other Universities, that’s not my job, surely that should be some broader organisation?

Well we’re trying to say to Universities that is becoming your job and it is reasonable to expect you to do that as part of your job, and we will measure their activities to try to ensure that they do.

How will you measure these activities? How is that going to work as a business? Is there any national co-ordination?

That’s what OFFA will be tasked with doing. We can measure the inputs and the outputs. We can look at how many schools are visited, what has happened to University applications from those schools, and that’s not simply applications to each University, it can be applications to Universities as a whole. We can monitor that kind of activity.

Will you then penalise Universities which didn’t do that?

One of the things we have said, for next few years at least, they’ll have to come back each year and show that they’ve been doing. If there are Universities which we think have been under-performing, then we have the power every year to decide whether or not they have met the promises of their access letter, and so can maintain their fees. But there does exist in extremist power to withdraw their right to charge more than £6000. If they’re under-performing, that’s the ultimate stick, as well as the carrot.

There is a clear conflict of interest between widening participation and recruitment for the individual institution. When you look at the fees that are likely to be charged by Russell Group Universities you can see that they have poor records of widening participation. Yet Universities that are great at widening participation are expected to not charge the maximum limit. You’re saying you can only charge higher if you increase widening participation. Why are the Universities that are least likely to change in terms of widening participation, such as Russell Group Universities, being allowed to charge the most?

I agree that under the last government, there was considerable progress made on widening participation overall, but not so much progress made on access, especially in research-intensive Russell Group Universities. So the new focus is access. That means that the bids for fees towards £9000 that come particularly from Russell Group Universities, will be the ones that have to show they’re absolutely doing the best on access. They will be the ones over whom we’ll have the greatest hold. They will be the ones who are asking the most of us, for whom therefore the offer requires on what you’re doing on access will be most onerous. So you could argue that this model is pretty well targeted on those problems.

The OFFA (Office for Fair Access) is seen by many, especially Student Unions within the Russell Group, to be a bit of a toothless institution, with no real power to enforce, and no power to advice. Is that likely to change? Should it change?

I understand that we’ve gone through this really tough set of controversial decisions of fees. I think it what necessary to ensure British Universities are properly resourced in the future so that future generations of students have a decent experience. But there are now some crucial challenges, and one is absolutely to make sure that we continue to make progress on access, and actually improve on our performance. We will toughen, we are toughening, in fact, there’s an annual review. The offer access letter that we’ve produced in draft and we’re going to revise it, but the one we produced in draft is already more demanding than anything that previously demanded before. So we now look at Universities to improve on access and improve on the student experience. They are the two paybacks for the big decisions that we have taken.

What will OFFA be given as a stick to enforce Universities on the issues of widening participation and access. Will the proposed changes include more power going to the IOA (Office of the Independent Adjudicator)?

Firstly, the access letter is more demanding than the past. Secondly, performance is annually reviewed, not every five years.  Thirdly, the power is minimise allowing them to charge fees higher than £6000.

I think the IOA does a very important job. I suspect it will become even more important. Although Lord Browne suggested simplification of the quangos, and I quite like simplification in general, I’ve concluded already that it’s important that the IOA – which has got a kind of semi-judicial function – does remain independent and continue to be able to be able to function the way it does.

You mentioned a lot of this is about better resourcing of Universities, but currently we’ve got a situation where the change in fees is only really making up for the loss in funding. In what way does this improve resources?

Vince and I had three options. One was we could’ve gone for a big reduction in student numbers; second, just a death by slow strangulation by reducing the grant; third, cutting back the grant and providing an alternative source of income instead. The third we absolutely recognise as the most tricky and most controversial way of doing it, but I think it was actually the one in the best interests of the country.

What I hope is that Universities will look at their costs. There are pension costs, there are still some Universities which have in-house staff when they should look to competitive and temporary contracts. They can look to hold down their costs.

When times are better, would fees potentially go back down?

I don’t know what will happen in the future. What I can see happening is alternative providers coming in with some completely different offers. Like an intensive course you which do in two years and not three; like a teaching institution that doesn’t do research as well, focuses on teaching, perhaps even teaches an external degree from a different university; a much more organised and intense 9-5 working week for teaching academics; much more use of distance learning. So that our higher education system becomes far more diverse, and people have the choice. They can come to the full-service, three-year, residential course, research-based University option. Equally there is [the option of]a far lower cost, stay at home, combine the course with working, or just take two years out sponsored by your employer. I think this will be better for social mobility, better for the overall system, if more of those types of alternatives emerge. Where we are behind, is there are other countries which have a far more diverse system.

Do you think that would mean that relatively-well off students would come to Universities, and everyone else would be choosing the alternative proposition?

I think that’s partly where the access agreements come in. Also, the easy political pressure is to say that fewer people should go to University, and I think that would’ve be a terrible loss of opportunity for young people. I believe in the opportunity to go to University, and it’s actually a deep-seated social, cultural economic trend for more people to go to University. If you look at a system where more people go to University, do I think that the more people going are going to be more people leaving home to stay at a halls of residence for three years, with a long summer break, to do a classic course? Probably not. I’m looking where the next generation of HE expansion is going to be, I think at last the web revolution will reach Higher Education. I think we’ve got a fantastic thing which is the Open University, and I think we’re all going to be using it. I think its going to be shorter courses. I think that’s probably where the next stage is. I hope that we can spread access to higher education, but meanwhile we’re under pressure so that the present experience will be socially diverse.

Why are we not investing more money to sent UK students abroad?

When I go abroad, I absolutely encourage this. What I’m trying to get in place is the structure of mutual recognition of qualifications, so that if someone from the University of Southampton does a year studying at the University of Pune, – which has hundreds of thousands of students, with several thousand from Europe, but fifty from the UK – you need mutual recognition so that a year’s studying there is the same academic standard as studying here so it counts towards your degree. I’m completely up for that. Within Europe, all the systems are there, I would absolutely love it if more British people took the opportunity of studying abroad. One thing I’m looking at is whether, for example, through UCAS or other systems we can ensure more information is available.

At the moment the government is in consultation regarding international student visas.  The UK has a good international reputation, if you’re going to cut off international applicants who cannot speak a certain level of English or who do not have any previous higher education qualifications, how is that going to help the UK maintain its good international reputation since international students make up approximately 9% of the student population?

The consultation ends next week, and we will then make the decision in the weeks after.

Additional questions by Sasha Watson, Mike Fisher, Sam Ling, Billy Fitzjohn, Emily Rees and Rob Stanning.

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