Higher education as seen by David Willetts

I’m open to correction, but I suspect that not too many readers of this blog will have spent the last couple of days closely following the proceedings of the annual British Conservative Party conference. In fact, I haven’t done that either, but I did spend a moment trying to find out what (if anything) was said about higher education. In that context a report in the Daily Telegraph of a speech by Universities Minister David Willetts did come to my attention.

I’m not sure whether the comments he made add up to a coherent perspective on England’s universities (higher education in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is not run out of London), but here are the main points he is reported to have made.

• Tuition fees will need to rise substantially to off-set public funding cuts, but people from wealthier backgrounds should perhaps pay more, not just in fees but in loan repayments. Interestingly, he suggested that having a university degree ‘on average … boosts [the graduate’s] earnings by £100,000 over a lifetime’ – which seems to me to be rather less than the actual ‘boost.’
• There should be more two-year foundation degree and degree programnmes (and here he is picking up a point made by the previous UK Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson). In fact, Mr Willetts said that there was a need for ‘more two-year degrees, more part-time students, and more courses with placements in business. That’s the future of higher education under this Coalition Government.’

If English higher education is to continue to be seen as world class, those who are working out a policy framework for it must stop just thinking about funding and budgets all the time. Of course it is not possible to have a system with real excellence if it is not properly resourced, but before you get to that you ned to have a sense of what it is you are resourcing.

It seems to me to be obvious that the whole concept of higher education is due for a re-think. My concern is that politicians, and sometimes the universities themselves, address all this purely in structural terms: what should the institutions look like, how should they be run, how should they be funded? These are important questions, but they are secondary to the larger questions of what the purpose and meaning of education. The detached, disinterested model of the university, pursuing knowledge for its own ends, would probably no longer be accepted for the higher education system overall (though perhaps it might still work for individual, generally very rich, institutions).

David Willetts is an interesting man, and he would probably have interesting things to say on this topic. He should get on with that, and until he has done so he should worry less about two-year degree programmes and the like.

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