No excuses on teaching quality with £9K fees, says Willetts

Former universities minister argues government is right to demand improvements in light of increased tuition income

January 27, 2016
David Willetts
Source: Julian Anderson

The introduction of £9,000 tuition fees means that universities no longer have a “reasonable alibi” for complaints about teaching quality, Lord Willetts has said.

Speaking at a debate organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Higher Education Academy as the government considers plans to introduce a teaching excellence framework, the former universities minister highlighted that funding per student in England had been falling for several decades up to the mid-2000s.

This decline in public and private funding had given institutions a “very reasonable alibi for anxieties about teaching quality”, he said, particularly when funding for schools had been better protected.

However, Lord Willetts said that the introduction of £3,000 tuition fees in 2006 had stabilised the unit of resource; and that, since the cap was lifted to £9,000 in 2012, it had gone up.

“That gives…the government the right to say ‘we have done our bit, we took a large amount of political flak and have done something which has successfully increased the cash behind each student to pay for their teaching’,” the peer said. “Now that we’ve done that, what are universities going to do to show…that there is really a concentration on improving the quality of teaching?”

“That is clearly at the top of the new government’s agenda, and quite rightly so.”

Lord Willetts said that the initial metrics proposed for the TEF – data on retention and graduate employment, plus National Student Survey results – got “to the heart of the kind of issues that students care about”, but he said it was important that the metrics were considered in their proper context.

Speaking at the same event, Gwen van der Velden, director of learning and teaching enhancement at the University of Bath, argued that the “major gap” in the TEF was that it did not make any attempt to deliver a more internationalised higher education experience for students.

As society grappled with global challenges such as terrorism, climate change and health, there was a “need for more informed discussion and the presence of a wider mindset” that universities could help to foster, she said.

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