Posted tagged ‘David Willetts’

Interesting times for English universities

November 27, 2010

Over the past few days, the British Minister of State for Universities and Science has been making various statements designed to map out the future direction of English higher education. On November 3 he made a statement to the House of Commons in which he explained the government’s decision to allow an increase in tuition fees, without lifting the cap completely. The standard ceiling will now be £6,000, with fees ‘n ‘exceptional cases’ permitted up to £9,000. This will not take the form of a payment on entry, but rather a repayment on graduation after pay exceeds a threshold of £21,000. He explained the payment system as follows:

‘We are also proposing a more progressive repayment structure. At present graduates start repaying when their income reaches £15,000. We will increase the repayment threshold to £21,000, and will thereafter increase it periodically to reflect earnings. The repayment will be 9% of income above £21,000, and all outstanding repayments will be written off after 30 years. Raising the threshold reduces the monthly repayments for every single graduate.’

Then the minister also addressed a meeting of Universities UK in which he explained that the upper cap of £9,000 would only apply where universities made special access arrangements for disadvantaged students. Interestingly, the minister also laid emphasis on his desire to have private higher education providers enter the market, and for growth in higher education provision by further education colleges. He described the new world of higher education as follows:

‘First of all there is a serious requirement of widening access. Secondly, universities shouldn’t underestimate the competitive challenge they will face. I have a stream of new providers who believe that there is potential to offer an alternative. I believe that the challenge for universities is to look very carefully at their costs, not simply assume [they can] take today’s costs and put them into the new world.’

Clearly the British government intends to change English higher education quite fundamentally. It is still too early to see for sure how the changes will look, but clearly there will be a major emphasis on competition, both between institutions and between types of institutions. Whether the system can flourish on that basis rather remains to be seen.

Higher education as seen by David Willetts

October 7, 2010

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.

Could (or should) we separate teaching and examining?

June 12, 2010

The new British Universities Minister, David Willetts, has suggested in a speech at Oxford Brookes University that there might be advantages in allowing new institutions to enter the higher education market to offer programmes that would then be examined by other (older) universities with ‘an established exam brand with global recognition’.

The major idea behind this suggestion appears to be the desire to admit new institutions into higher education. These would be able to establish themselves more quickly by linking to examinations (and, presumably, the syllabus) of highly reputable existing universities. This would be an extension, presumably, of the franchising of degree programmes that has been a feature of British higher education for the past decade or more. The new model would separate teaching and examining in a way that is similar to the secondary school system.

I confess I don’t find it easy to see the point of such a proposal. Restructuring the higher education sector in such a way that new colleges do service teaching for older universities (who then examine the outputs) does not seem to me to solve any of the various problems facing the sector right now. In any case, a proliferation of higher education providers with a teaching-only agenda may create its own quality assurance issues.

I suspect we all need to think again at how we can re-imagine university teaching to allow it to cope with the new resourcing environment. But I have serious doubts whether this proposal is the answer.