Speaking at the British Council’s Going Global conference for leaders of international higher education on 2 June, David Willetts said that one of his “regrets” was that he was not able to get that policy implemented during his time as minister.
“Compared to other systems, where our system is weak is in funding students to go abroad. I think there is an implicit disguised protectionism in saying that your fee loans are only to be spent at British universities,” he said.
He added that he would have “loved” to be able to tell foreign ministers that provide scholarship schemes to the UK that in return the UK would allow English students to use their student loans in their countries, “on the proviso that the host university met the required standards” for quality.
“My view is as globalisation reaches higher education, that is the next stage of the agenda,” he said.
Mr Willetts also said that the trebling of tuition fees to £9,000 has now become “widely accepted” and many of the fears around the hike were “misplaced”.
“Quite a lot of people actually thought students had to pay up front, when actually compared to every other country we are unusual in having no fees whatsoever that students pay up front,” he said.
“There was an anxiety that students would be put off. The good news is young people by and large understand the system. I think the system is broadly stable.”
He added: “More students are applying than ever before, there is more cash coming into universities than ever before so I think that the controversial reforms that we introduced have been vindicated by the evidence.”
During the panel discussion titled “Culture of funding: sustaining global higher education”, Mr Willetts was asked what he thought a successful higher education system looks like.
He said: “Given the fiscal pressures facing most countries, it is one that can sustain or even increase the resources going into education, enabling more people in your country to participate in higher education, without increasing the pressures on the national exchequer, but whilst ensuring equity and easy access.
“I do think if you apply those criteria, Australia, New Zealand and England look to have a system which reconciles those different requirements the most.”
Talking about why and when a shift emerged in UK thinking behind funding higher education, he added: “The crucial moment was in the early 2000s when our universities observed that in the battle for public funding they were regularly coming at the back of the queue.”
He expressed frustration that there was a misconception that as the minister responsible for allowing universities to treble tuition fees, he had somehow “privatised” UK higher education.
He said that there was still significant public funding in the UK for “high-cost subjects” and “high-cost students”, who either came from low-income backgrounds so were eligible for financial support, or those who were unlikely to be able to repay their loans and would therefore have their loan written off after 30 years.
Mr Willetts also praised the value of higher education's role in supporting civil society in developing countries, but said that the UK’s spending on aid for overseas education was “shockingly low”.
“I warmly welcome a real radical rethink that has happened in the World Bank in recent years, and is happening in [the Department for International Development] now, from investment in early years education to recognising higher education,” he said.