It would be a really big help if…

His portfolio safe, David Willetts can enjoy some stability and clarity, the very things v-cs would like from the minister

October 31, 2013

“They are likely to say absolutely nothing. It’s a very emotive issue. It’s not a vote winner.”

So says Sir Christopher Snowden, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, of the prospect of any of the main political parties giving honest and firm commitments on tuition fees ahead of the next general election.

It is no doubt an accurate prediction – the Liberal Democrats learned the lesson on behalf of all last time around – but such obfuscation allows no choice or clarity on an issue of huge importance to vast swathes of the electorate, university staff included.

Such obfuscation allows no choice or clarity on an issue of huge importance to vast swathes of the electorate, university staff included

A straw poll of vice-chancellors on their priorities for David Willetts now that he is likely to see out the Parliament as universities and science minister reveals widespread concern about fees – concern that may be exacerbated by the Office of Fair Trading’s investigation into competition (or lack thereof) in higher education.

“The number one priority is to find a way to deal with the £9K fee cap. It cannot be an electoral issue so Willetts cannot mention it,” says one. “But with inflation reducing £9K by about 2.5 per cent a year, he either has to find a way of lifting the cap or at the very least avoid having to commit to retaining it.”

The vice-chancellor also notes that Willetts has 18 months to press Labour hard on its fees policy: “ ‘Where exactly, Mr Miliband, will you get the resource to fund universities if you reduce fees to £6K?’ Willetts has an open goal here.”

Another vice-chancellor, who also puts the funding environment at the head of the list, suggests that “we may be in the calm before the storm”.

“I for one am not convinced that the funding reforms have worked,” the respondent says. “A little further down the line, when students start to graduate with gigantic debts and more options are understood, I wonder how the reforms will look then?

“But perhaps that’s too far away for Willetts to worry about.”

What other areas should the minister prioritise, in a week when the pension deficit, postgraduate funding problems and further evidence of the impact of visa policy on international student numbers (particularly from India) fill our pages?

These issues, as well as the collapse in part-time study, are all mentioned in our straw poll, as are the erosion of teacher training in universities and worries about the outcome of the research excellence framework (one vice-chancellor makes a plea for a REF that “genuinely rewards decent research wherever it is found, and incentivises, not punishes, the 2* work where evident improvement is shown since 2008”).

“But perhaps the most important thing the sector and students need is confidence and a degree of certainty,” concludes one of the respondents. His wish list? “Further explanation of the value of going to university (especially to parents and society at large), making it clear that the loan is a de facto tax (and a progressive one at that), guaranteeing to maintain the threshold for repayments (at £21K), sustaining student numbers, and, crucially, not too much interference (pace the OFT inquiry).” “But,” he adds, “I also believe in Father Christmas.”

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