Bill Rammell might have been expected to shy away from sector policy after swapping life as a Labour MP and higher education minister for the vice-chancellor’s job at the University of Bedfordshire.
But whether he is criticising the government’s AAB and “margin” policies as “a leap in the dark” or repudiating the “nonsense” written about Bedfordshire by newspapers that “don’t believe in widening participation”, the sector’s bigger picture clearly still engages him.
Mr Rammell, who took over from Les Ebdon at Bedfordshire in August, wants the university to “remain focused on (the) broadening access agenda”. However, he added: “I don’t believe that (that) is inconsistent with improving our league table position.”
With a “strong focus on the student experience and the National Student Survey…you can make progress”, insisted Mr Rammell, who was minister for higher education from 2005 to 2008.
As part of that focus, he aims to improve graduate employability. Mr Rammell said that “over time” he wanted to consider introducing the US model whereby a university employs students in delivering campus services - giving them greater financial security and employability skills.
Bedfordshire, whose main campus is in Luton, was branded “one of the country’s WORST universities” in a Daily Mail headline earlier this year as it savaged Professor Ebdon over his appointment as director of the Office for Fair Access.
Mr Rammell said that “universities that are at the forefront of widening participation…are always going to be attacked by those newspapers that, bluntly, don’t believe in widening participation”, noting that such newspapers believe that “if you increase the flow of students to university you devalue the benefit to the minority”.
He added that “the facts”, such as 90 per cent of Bedfordshire graduates being in work six months after graduation, “utterly rebut some of the nonsense that’s written about the university”.
In September 2013, Bedfordshire will open a campus in Milton Keynes in partnership with the town’s council, initially focusing on science and technology and business courses.
Milton Keynes has “really exciting demographics”, said Mr Rammell, adding that it was experiencing the “biggest expansion of any town or city in the country”.
He said it had one of the highest numbers of start-up businesses in the UK and scored highly for the number of “knowledge-dense” firms. “If you can’t get it right in that environment as a university, you don’t deserve to be in business,” he said.
On sector policy, he said of the government’s attempts to open up competition for high-achieving A-level students, and meanwhile redistribute some places to cheaper providers: “It is - and, privately, ministers and civil servants will tell you this - a leap in the dark.”
The right approach now, he suggested, should be to say: “Let’s have a pause for a couple of years and see exactly where this goes and what the implications are.”
There was “a risk that some policymakers have a view that the only place students with AAB (at A level) should go is a certain type of university”, Mr Rammell said.
He added: “The biggest skills challenge we face is to move from 31 per cent of the adult working population educated to degree level to 40 per cent…That’s the big, big challenge and that is not related to the small numbers, relatively, that academically are at the very top of the spectrum.”