Bullish Clarke sets out stall

January 23, 2003

*No state funding for under 5-rated research *New 6-rating for super-elite *Students to vets quality

He's stood up to the chancellor, taken on his critics within the party and is in no mood to take any prisoners outside it. John O'Leary amd Alan Thomson talk to Charles Clarke about his determination to transform HE

Education secretary Charles Clarke is characteristically bullish when it comes to defending the radicalism of his higher education white paper. There is no trace of guilt from the former National Union of Students president about releasing the ogre of top-up fees and promoting the development of a hierarchy of universities.

Not only does Mr Clarke proclaim the package “fantastic for British higher education”, he insists that it will be “access positive” and even claims that many students will be prepared to pay more in return for being treated as adults.

In the seemingly interminable run-up to the white paper’s publication, Mr Clarke has admitted to a few qualms about increasing tuition fees. But, now that the moment of truth has arrived, he appears to have convinced himself that a realignment of the higher education system is both necessary and desirable.

He is relaxed after getting his own way in the highly publicised negotiations of the past few weeks and is ready to take on the critics within his own party and further afield. “This has always been a controversial area,” he says. “People have backed off because it has been too difficult, to the detriment of British higher education.”

No one will be able to accuse him of that, however much they may resent innovations such as the proposed access regulator, the new fees regime or the provision of extra funding for a handful of universities judged to be “world-class” at research. And he will hope to sweeten the pill for universities with what he describes as the best funding settlement “for decades”, with the prospect of a degree of independence in years to come. With fees of up to £3,000 a year to be introduced only in 2006 and repayments limited to graduates on salaries of at least £15,000, that point is still the better part of a decade away. But both Mr Clarke and the prime minister Tony Blair were determined that universities should have an independent income stream eventually. The graduate tax favoured by chancellor Gordon Brown would have left the Treasury in control. Higher education will have to fight its corner in one more spending review before the fees bounty starts to flow. But Mr Clarke believes such exercises are stacked against universities in the long term because they cannot compete with schools and hospitals.

Other changes will come more quickly and some will be equally controversial in the academic world. Indeed, the education secretary gives the impression that he will positively welcome a row or two if it prevents attention focusing exclusively on grants and fees. “The student finance tail should not wag the higher education dog,” he says.

As if to ensure that does not happen, he launches enthusiastically into the government’s case for greater diversity in the university system. “The ‘emperor’s clothes’ idea that all universities are broadly the same was always nonsense and needs to be stripped away,” he says. It may be a brutal affair, with Mr Clarke promising a “ruthless scrutiny” that will spell the end of state funding for research for all departments rated less than 5. They will have to demonstrate they have a “reasonable probability” of becoming a 5 or 5* over a given period.

Not that those institutions that make the research cut will have it easy. They may receive more money for research but they will have to satisfy more stringent rules on governance and financial management, details of which are still to be worked out.

As Mr Clarke says: “There are quite serious governance issues at some of the greatest research universities. And we want to give ourselves some ability to support those in universities who possibly want to modernise governance.”

Another irritant for some of our top universities may be the acknowledgement that they are not quite as good as they thought they were. The announcement of a new 6*-rating for truly world-class research will throw the cat among the Russell Group pigeons. Those institutions with largely 6*-rated departments will become a super elite.

Diversity is driven too by the desire to “motivate teaching”. The decision to award university status to institutions lacking research degree-awarding powers is a clear signal that teaching is high on the agenda, though Mr Clarke acknowledges that some people will think this a “dangerous course” to take.

It is, he says, acknowledgement that teaching undergraduate courses is in itself a worthwhile and positive mission.

And quality control is paramount when people pay more for their higher education. The answer from the department is to put quality control in the hands of the consumers, the students. Their “regular validation and commentary” on teaching, on a subject-by-subject basis, will be backed by an ombudsman.

Expansion to meet the government’s 50 per cent target will take place “overwhelmingly”, says Mr Clarke, at vocational and foundation-degree level.

He attacks the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, who call for the target to be scrapped, but admits the target was ill defined. In short, it ignored the fact that we have plenty of graduates but need more people with intermediate-level vocational skills.

He says: “I think that the charge that we have not sufficiently thought through what is the nature of our degree offer is a valid issue.”

Foundation degrees are a more natural vehicle to “better reflect the aspirations, desires and ambitions” of the people needed to hit the target, not the traditional university-going middle classes.

It is convenient that foundation degrees, while liable for the same maximum charge of £3,000 from 2006, are likely to be cheaper to deliver and so discounted by universities. Even if they are not, they last only two years and so offer a saving of a year’s worth of tuition and living costs.

Mr Clarke has a ready market in mind for foundations, having had reassurances from Alan Milburn at the health department, and David Blunkett at the Home Office, that there are thousands of National Health Service staff, police officers, prison officers and others who will jump at the chance of foundation degrees. Who knows, the fees may even be paid for by those government departments.

Not forgetting the private sector, Mr Clarke has had an undertaking from CBI director-general Digby Jones that he will encourage member companies to be active in supporting foundation degrees.

Institutions will offer a range of courses but if they want to charge top-up fees, then they will have to meet the requirements of a new access regulator.

Mr Clarke rules out imposing quotas for universities. But the regulator will look at universities’ self-imposed quotas and decide whether they are acceptable given the university’s starting point in terms of social mix. Once approved, they will have to demonstrate that they are hitting their target.

While Mr Clarke acknowledges that the most profound access issue lies in secondary schools and the lack of people from poorer backgrounds gaining two or more A levels, he also has a warning for top universities.

“Our biggest problem in terms of access are some of the big research-intensive institutions.”

Of the three missions identified for universities, business links and knowledge transfer may be the least glamorous, but their position in the white paper ahead of teaching and learning is plainly designed to underline their importance in ministers’ eyes. Such collaboration, after all, takes some of the funding burden off the taxpayer as well as benefiting the economy.

Mr Clarke outlines his plans for centres of excellence, mainly outside the research institutions, with most universities specialising in local or regional links. The Higher Education Innovation Fund will be the main vehicle for encouraging much closer engagement with business and industry.

Although the European Commission recently praised British universities for their role in innovation, Mr Clarke believes that contacts remain “marginal” on both sides. He is determined to foster a closer relationship to overcome Britain’s inability to turn world-class research into successful products.

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