A government cutting tuition fees in response to England’s Augar panel report must “absolutely” replace the lost university income, while seeing off threatened restrictions on university access was “a hill I was willing to die on”, universities minister Chris Skidmore has said.
Mr Skidmore made the comments at the Higher Education Policy Institute’s annual conference, where he also criticised the use of the phrase “bums on seats” in relation to university recruitment – a phrase used by his superior, education secretary Damian Hinds, as well as by his predecessor as universities minister, Sam Gyimah.
The Augar panel report called for a lower fee cap of £7,500 and full replacement funding so the average unit of resource remains unchanged. Many fear that the Treasury would be unwilling to finance this top-up funding – but that a future Conservative government could go ahead with the fee cut anyway.
During a question and answer session at the event on 13 June, Mr Skidmore said that in the current “extraordinary” political climate – with a new Conservative leader and prime minister shortly to be chosen – he was “not sure whether I’ll still be the universities minister in eight weeks’ time”.
He added: “What I’m going to do is give my personal view – rather than the government’s view – which is absolutely that we would need to see a top-up. I’ve always felt that privately.”
He called for a “whole system approach” joining up further and higher education, with the latter continuing to be involved in the provision of sub-degree, vocational Level 4 and 5 qualifications.
“I don’t think the FE sector is strong enough, it certainly hasn’t got the capital, to be able to deliver the explosion in Level 4/5 qualifications alone,” Mr Skidmore said.
He continued: “Ultimately, I think we should be rightly proud of our higher education system and continue to invest in it, and we can’t rob Peter to pay Paul.”
Mr Skidmore also repeated his call for the government to fully consult with the sector on the panel report, rather than rushing its response. “If you’re going to produce a report of this magnitude…then the sector does need to have that consultative opportunity,” he said.
He added that he was “keen to progress that” and joked he was in a “one-man race at the moment to continue in my job”.
Mr Skidmore also stressed how determined he had been in successfully opposing plans to restrict entry to universities via a tariff threshold for loan access – at one stage seen as likely to be recommended by the panel and set at three D grades at A level or equivalent – because of the threat it posed to access for disadvantaged students.
“I’ve seen so many examples of students…who have flourished late in life,” he said. “I wasn’t going to be the universities minister who was going to be able to defend putting a ‘three D’ cap in place.”
The minister also addressed some of the terminology used in criticism of universities. Mr Hinds, the education secretary, issued a press release ahead of the publication of the panel report in which he said it was “right that we challenge those institutions which could appear to be more focused on ‘getting bums on seats’ than getting students into high quality courses worth paying for”.
Mr Skidmore did not refer to any Conservative colleagues by name. But he said: “I’ve heard some people talk about universities putting ‘bums on seats’. I hate that phrase…I want to revoke that language from any politician using that phrase. I’ve never met any university professional who simply wants to drag students in without giving them the best possible experience and the best possible qualification.”