David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, visited Southampton University yesterday afternoon to officially open the new Mountbatten building, as well as speak to a group of Southampton students.
The £55m building is one of Europe’s leading multidisciplinary and state-of-the-art clean room complexes and provides flexible research space for technology development in nanotechnology and photonics for the University’s School of Electronics and Computer Science and the Optoelectronics Research Centre.
David Willetts, who was responsible for proposing the rise in the tuition fee cap to £9000 in December last year, then spent half an hour talking to eight students in an informal Q&A session. In attendance were Sasha Watson, Jessica Fuhl, Michael Fisher and Sam Ling from the Wessex Scene, as well as SUSU Sabbatical Officers, Billy Fitzjohn, Rob Stanning and Emily Rees.
Questions varied from how the Government will attempt to ensure Universities do not all charge £9000, something that has been anticipated by NUS President, Aaron Porter, to questions on the cutting of the AimHigher scheme, increasing Erasmus opportunities and whether greater powers need to be given to public bodies, such as OFFA, to ensure that Universities do promote fair access to higher education.
On why Universities will not all charge £9000, Willetts said that as fees “get higher, they have to have more and more ambitious, far reaching proposals on widening participation”, as well as compete with “providers, who may well come in with lower fees; they will need to be very careful as to how their offer compares with, for example, higher education at a local foundation education college.” When pressed on whether Universities would charge a higher fee to suggest they were a better institution, Willetts said that whilst it was a potential problem, it would be the Government’s job to ensure that Universities could not do so by “engaging in rent seeking behaviour.”
Disappointingly for the students, Willetts would not be drawn on whether the cap would ever be lowered, following a question by Sam Ling. Instead, he said that institutions would start to offer more intensive two-year courses or more online courses to give greater diversity instead, meaning students could lower the overall cost of studying by living at home, and not being in employment for a smaller amount of time. Emily Rees commented that “you wouldn’t achieve a balanced University experience, […] you wouldn’t see the diversity that you want to see in Higher Education,” with richer families sending their children to University, whilst others studied from home.
One major issue that came from this was how Universities planned to negotiate charging a higher price for education, whilst also managing the increased expectation levels of students who are looking for value for money. Willetts said that he expected Universities to be very up front with what they provided, if they were to charge higher levels. Information on how much time students get with academics, how crowded seminars and lectures are, the time-frame for Universities to turn around coursework feedback and to the speed of responses to questions were just some of the issues that the Minister highlighted. He said he wanted to “empower students, and when people are paying 6, 7, 8 or 9 thousand per year, they are bloody well going to be consumerist about it – asking what am I getting for my money, and it’s absolutely right to hold Universities to account on it.”
The majority of the conversation, however, focused on how Universities would be allowed to charge up to £9000 – with questions being asked on how levels of participation from different backgrounds were going to be guaranteed. Criticism stemmed from the Government’s decision to cut funding for AimHigher; one student commented that government plans came across as being very similar to what is currently in place, minus the independence of the scheme, which could cause potential conflicts of interest.
Emily Rees questioned whether Universities would actively push Higher Education in general, as opposed to advertising their own establishments. Willetts said the Government would measure each University’s activity, to ensure it motivated greater participation in Higher Education generally, but Jessica Fuhl took issue with the principle of Universities actively advertising other institutions, saying “it’s like working in Asda and asking people to go to Tesco – it doesn’t make business sense.”
Rob Stanning criticised current legislative groups that supposedly track the widening of participation, asking Willetts if they would be given more power to hold Universities to account if they didn’t meet requirements; he said that OFFA is reviewed every year, but would not elaborate on an exact plan of action.
On the whole, the students were surprised at how forthcoming the Minister was in the discussion, but with so much to cover in a short space of time, some were left wanting the discussions to continue. Emily Rees commented that she was “left frustrated; month’s worth of student lobbying and engagement with the issue just couldn’t be explored within a half hour’s chat.”
However, with Mr Willetts making it clear that Universities had to actively seek to increase the services it provides for its students, the students present at the discussion all agreed that now, more than ever, is the time to press the University on the real issues that students have. Rob Stanning said “the University needs to start to get the things right that are taking away from the student experience at the moment, before the rise in fees. Contact time, facilities quality and key learning resources are real points of concern that students deserve to have improved now, not just for the 2012 intake of students.”
An audio recording of the whole discussion is available here.