Fears that Willetts’ hellish week may leave debate in limbo

By Simon Baker (story + comments)

‘Knee-jerk’ reactions to minister’s musings endanger sector, v-cs claim. Simon Baker writes

Fears that Willetts' hellish week may leave debate in limbo

Credit: PA Wire/Press Association

Ideas man: David Willetts received mixed reviews from senior sector figures for a proposal to create ‘off-quota’ home student places

The future of higher education is being put in jeopardy at a time of unprecedented change because coalition politics and “knee-jerk” reactions to policy proposals are stifling debate, vice-chancellors have warned.

Their concerns come in the wake of a furore last week over an idea floated by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who suggested removing number controls for “off-quota” home students who can fund their tuition fees up front.

Within hours, angry claims that the policy would allow the rich to buy university places forced Mr Willetts to issue a statement insisting that the proposal would apply only to students sponsored by companies or charities.

Prime Minister David Cameron also intervened in an attempt to quell the political storm whipped up by the suggestion.

Mr Willetts’ torrid week continued two days later when an apparently speculative remark he made about the possibility of universities cutting tuition fees late in the application cycle sparked another media row.

Some newspaper commentators took personal aim at the minister, who in the past has been criticised for thinking in an “academic way”, and more than 170 scholars at the University of Oxford signed a motion of “no confidence” in his policies.

Let’s be reasonable

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that although the government’s higher education plans were “in a mess” after it underestimated the cost of taxpayer-funded student loans, it was crucial that there was reasoned debate to find solutions.

On the off-quota idea, he said: “David Willetts floated a serious proposal to address the problem, which deserves serious discussion instead of the knee-jerk reactions it received.

“It is a depressing reflection of the state of politics and policymaking that a minister cannot think out loud in this way.”

He added that although there were major problems with Mr Willetts’ idea, it was more “palatable” than other options for saving money in light of the burgeoning loan book, such as cutting places or grant money.

Van Gore, vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, said that although the funding environment was not easy, it was time for the sector to move on from “carping, criticism and clinging to the status quo”.

He said he feared that the term “off-quota” had been “rendered toxic”, a mistake when the socially progressive possibilities of finding extra places for debt-averse students from low-income backgrounds needed careful consideration.

Professor Gore added: “It is crucial that we restore a meaningful dialogue with policymakers.

“For all the Punch and Judy politics of last week, David Willetts is a thoughtful minister who is right to be trying to find a way forward that could deliver more places and greater social mobility (while remaining) within Treasury constraints.”

Breakdown in communications

Others said the “realpolitik” of the coalition between the Conservatives and Lib Dems was making debate even more difficult, and fears were expressed that the higher education White Paper, due this summer, could arrive with no input from the sector.

Don Nutbeam, the University of Southampton’s vice-chancellor, said there were “continuing examples of the two partners in government being unable to communicate clear and consistent messages”.

Meanwhile, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, told the Higher Education Futures Forum in London last week that the off-quota episode was a “dispiriting insight” into how coalition policy was developed.

Chris Snowden, vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, suggested that there should be more discussion with the sector to iron out potential problems before proposals were floated in public.

“The government must have had some idea of what the political reaction would be to this proposal,” he said, adding that the potentially “sensible” uses of an off-quota policy may have been destroyed by the row.

However, there was still outright criticism of the government’s approach from some quarters.

David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, said attempts to “wrest back the political initiative” through “ill-informed speculation” and “hare-brained” ideas risked exacerbating the confusion and anger over higher fees.

Referring to last week’s rows, he said: “Young people and their parents became bemused by the half-baked ideas that were advanced and withdrawn on a virtually daily basis.” He predicted that the continued “dreadful publicity” over higher education would contribute to a significant fall in applications.


Readers’ comments

  • Pilt19 May, 2011If 170 `Oxford scholars` condemn something, then it`s a good idea to do it precisely because they don`t like it. As usual, they`re not thinking about anyone except themselves.
  • Ho Hum19 May, 2011Fine, allow off quota home students (How many students funded by companies do we think will just so happen to have the same surname as the CEO of the company sponsoring them?) But, add another £10k onto the tuition fee cost for them and use that money to fully fund one bright student from a low income background who otherwise wouldn’t be able to come.
  • Newell Hampson-Jones19 May, 2011″It is a depressing reflection of the state of politics and policymaking that a minister cannot think out loud in this way.”In many ways I agree with this, however my concern is with the way in which Mr Willetts manages these thoughts. Surely it would be much better to capture these to be presented at a place where the sole purpose is to present and discuss ideas, like a town hall meeting event, with open consultation afterwards.

    The current process of dropping an idea in to an interview seems reckless and provokes reactions, whilst some from of managed ideas space (which could then seek consultation post-event) would be far more productive, bring far more varied and considered responses and possibly bring real progress.

    Not for the first time, a politician has shown a shockingly poor understanding of how knowledge can be managed and created.

  • dave19 May, 2011Whatever happened to green papers? Getting some suggestions in writing and then having a proper consultation?
  • Cosimo Montagu19 May, 2011One has to wonder how much Twitter in particular generates this kind of quick response….especially within the student movement as we are all quite avid users.Saying that, although I always think reasoned and considered debate is the way forwards, allowing time for these ideas to grow can be almost more damaging at times.

    Perhaps if there had been more of a quick and angry ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to the Browne report as the ideas were formulated…. we wouldn’t be in the mess we were in now? Allow ideas like this too much room to breath, and suddenly we are stuck with them and unable to convince politicians of their flaws… or at least that is how it feels.

  • Donald Hedges19 May, 2011Indubitably, Mr Willets is not the only Minister who is making such off-tangent remarks. Kenneth Clarke is another victim of what may only be termed “foot in mouth” disease. Its nice to see that maybe Ministers can think but most of us would appreciate the government speaking with one voice on this subject. Finally, let me state that the application of off quota fees goes against every sinew of any previous policy on widening access and fair access of higher education to all. It opens the way towards a private higher educational system whereby ability to pay is the only criteria. It is a narrow minded way of thinking and indicates further this government’s trend towards exclusivity.A bad week all round for the government, in other words.
  • Burkanwills20 May, 2011I’m with Ho Hum, to a degree. If people opt out of public education by sending their offspring to private schools, then they should be obliged to pay full fee for any univeristy tuition said offspring receive. And people should be permitted to buy places: more students mean more teaching staff (obviously not in the circus of the insane that is the British university these days, but at least in theory). This income, besides paying for the odd additional salary, could also be devoted towards a system that would finance publicly-educated students, in a means-tested way. Let’s call these funds ‘grants’.As things stand, departments and faculties in the humanities and social sciences will close because potential students will not be prepared to accrue enormous debt for a degree with no certain employment at the end of it. Universities are now amongst the largest of employers: large-scale reductions would increase local unemployment. This prospect needs to be taken into account.
  • Jon Jones20 May, 2011Oh for goodness sake Bahram. In policy wonk land off quota students make perfect sense. Meanwhile, any suggestion that additional places can be acquired by paying higher fees is bound (rightly) to end in the reaction we saw last week.It’s about time the sector got a bit more real. This is not a debate about higher education funding anymore. It’s morphed into a discussion about social justice. And even for those of us who thought 9k fees are just about tolerable, the off quota procurement of places just donsn’t smell fair. Even if it did mean an extra shilling for us horrendously underpaid academics…..
  • @Jon Jones20 May, 2011How come those lefties who do not worry about unfairness of those who are travelling by public transport while buying an audi, howl protests when university places are amde available for enhanced tuion fee payments. I have a socialist academic colleague who does not hesitate to spend thousands of pounds for a Tuscany holiday, is now posting here protesting about money buying university places.
  • Fees Watchman21 May, 2011Being one who is regularly reading up on what is happening in the fees arena, I was quite intrigued this week to find how much that several articles in this week’s THE were very much taking the stance that Mr Willetts and other politicians on the case are getting too much quick criticism, knee-jerk, high anger.While I am a believer in freedom of speech and opportunity for dialogue, that does justify some reason to give government a right to speak and then express any disagreement backed by evidence. What we do really need to realise at the same time however, looking at this impartially, is that the government do have to be transparent at the same time and I feel that over the past months there has definitely been some lack of transparency.

    For example, the government has quite rightly said that students will not have to pay up front and that those earning low incomes at any point after graduation will not have any worse financial difficulties as they will not be subjected to pay anything back. However, that was sounded out very loudly I believe to over-shadow the fact that those graduates who will come to earn high salaries over 30k in 2015 and beyond will be paying back their loans with a real interest rate – and who knows where the base rate will be by then – probably quite high. Therefore it will be expensive to be in a graduate job and questionable as to whether such jobs will bring back much financial reward. Graduates will have two mortgages to deal with.

    It has been well known for some time (though I feel not sounded out so publicly) that it is expected many students entering higher education from wealthier families will have parents to pay their fees up front and avoid the burdensome problem of paying back such high loans with interest at a later stage in life. Again the government has to be openly honest about these realities.

    Thus when considering that these “over quota” places, even though Mr Willetts insists they are for students sponsored by companies and charities, that still does not remove the problem that such a policy won’t be fostering the above problem. One reality that cannot be escaped is that it will again be the wealthy students that have the educational record, and parental contacts, that will get such sponsorships to enable them to gain such places. One has to tread ever so carefully on such ides of new policies given the constraints that current policies are already giving very little space, if any, for movement.

    To end on a more positive note though, having personal interest in there being funds to attract good engineers and scientists, schemes in place to help industry subsidise fees and make such awards to high achieving students will in the long term also help industry as they will then be able to ensure places are given to students to get the kind of graduates we will be getting desperate for. At the same time making the career look more worth while to the student because they will start to feel wanted rather than just seeking careers that are going to give them enough spare cash on top of the due debts they will have to pay.

See story @ http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=416183&c=1


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