Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Mr Willetts was listening - you can't separate universities from schools

The universities and science minister, David Willetts, set out this afternoon before the House of Commons, the Government's final response to Lord Browne's independent review of student finance and funding.  I say "final" with some caution because if there is significant time given over to parliamentary debate and, more importantly, any Commons votes, on the matter, don't bet against it being altered in some ways still.

Nevertheless, we can only go on what we have, for now, and I shan't go into any detail about what the Government's proposals are.  For a comprehensive run-down and commentary, you can do no wrong in having a look at Times Higher Education and Martin at The University Blog.

What I'm very pleased about is that Mr Willetts got up to the despatch box today and presented the Government's higher education policies in a wider, more holisitic education policy framework that takes in the coalition's reforms for schools, from start to finish.

On the date of the Browne Review's publication, 12th October, I wrote an article in which I advised that the Government say:
"We accept Lord Browne's recommendations. Whilst we do so with regret for the extra burden graduates will have to bear, we also do so out of the responsibility to provide a world-class standard of university education for everyone in this country.

However, we cannot only look at universities, nor expect them to resolve the greatest problems of educational underachievement.

Accompanying our Higher Education Bill, to be introduced in 2011, will be a series of detailed measures to encourage greater participation by students from less privileged backgrounds. These measures will complement and reinforce our already radical education reforms, such as increased roll-out of Academies, free schools and the pupil premium."
After PMQs today, David Willetts said, inter alia, the following:
Our higher education system...need[s] for more focus on the student experience, the need to widen access and the need for sustained funding. These challenges led the previous Government, on a cross-party basis, to set up Lord Browne’s review. We are grateful to Lord Browne for his excellent work. I think he has made us all re-examine our positions...

Although participation in higher education has improved in recent years, there has not been enough progress in securing fair access to some of our best-known universities.  We can make progress by improving the school attainment of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why the Government are investing in a new premium for two-year-olds, and in the pupil premium. However, we want that focus on improving the life chances of those from disadvantaged backgrounds to continue to university. For that reason, as the Deputy Prime Minister has already announced, we will also establish a new £150 million national scholarships programme, which will be targeted on bright potential students from poor backgrounds to encourage them to apply to university and meet their aspirations.

All universities that want to charge a higher graduate contribution than the £6,000 threshold will be obliged to participate in the national scholarships programme... Our current preference is for universities to offer scholarships to targeted students, including the principal beneficiaries of the pupil premium. That would mean that at least their first year at university was free. Other attractive ideas include expanding the model of a foundation year for young people with high potential but lower qualifications.
This must be the message that the Government repeats, like Labour do so effectively, over and over again.  The reforms to higher education are not isolated reforms - they come as part of a considerably wider education package of immense import.  I believe that it is in doing this that the Government has a chance of winning over Liberal Democrat MPs and the country at large (Paul Goodman put this question earlier on ConHome).

Yet Ministers, blue and yellow, must stick to this task with tremendous conviction.  Although it is considerably less radical than what Lord Browne proposed, it is already hugely unpopular.

Oscar Wilde was stretching hyperbole to the limit when he said "everything popular is wrong".  However, in this case, the unpopular course most certainly is the right one.


  1. I have long believed that schools and universities cannot be seen in total isolation from each other. The more we can see them working together, the better.

    It is also vital that schools give prior preparation for HE, an understanding of what it means and entails, and a greater awareness of alternatives to university.

    As for today's response, I'm not surprised you say "final" with caution. This is just the beginning. I can see a lot of movement regarding these proposals, not even considering whether or not a vote to push them through actually succeeds in the Commons.

    Whether you're for or against the measures being proposed, these are interesting and uncertain times.

  2. Nik and Martin are absolutely spot on - joined up thinking with all levels of education is absolutely crucial in maintaining not only a well-educated workforce but also instilling an appreciation for learning generally.

    Willetts' statement yesterday showed that the government had acknowledged the inextricable link - Michael Gove discussing university fees with the media earlier yesterday morning may be a subtle yet tactically necessary hint to the working partnership that they and Cable have built up around the issue.

    Encouraging to see but, as you both note, we should wait to see the "final" white paper before casting concerte praise on the government.