David Willetts has criticised the stance of some Conservative colleagues who argue that “too many people go to university”, noting that Tory areas are the main source of the “problem”.
The former Conservative universities and science minister, who was in government when the cap on student numbers was removed and is a vocal defender of the policy, was speaking at a fringe event at the party’s conference in Manchester last night.
Answering questions from the audience, he gave a spirited and satirical response on the question of numbers entering higher education.
“If too many people are going to university and we really need to cut down, [then] good for Humberside, fantastic performance by central Liverpool, wonderful performance in Sunderland in making sure not too many people go,” he told the event, hosted by Bright Blue, GuildHE and University Alliance.
“But the terrible behaviour of Hampshire and Surrey and the prosperous parts of Hertfordshire. It is Tory constituencies where the proportion of young people going to university is already above 50 per cent.”
He added: “If there are too many people going to university, Conservative areas are the culprits.”
Mr Willetts said that he would “look forward to the day” when a Conservative candidate says: “I’m terribly sorry but we need to do better in Guildford and stop all of our young people going to university.”
And he continued: “My experience – because I got this a lot – you would sit next to people at Tory events and they would say too many people go to university. [I would say] so how many kids have you got? How many of them went to university?” Mr Willetts said that it always seemed that it was “someone else who shouldn’t go”.
The event, titled “University: is it worth it?”, also saw the former minister address the question of the £21,000 earnings threshold for student loan repayments, which some critics have said was set too high and has undermined the sustainability of the system.
Mr Willetts said that the threshold had been “higher relative to average earnings than we envisaged”, adding that he would “sometimes kick myself” that the government had not linked the threshold to average earnings.
Megan Dunn, president of the National Union of Students, another member of the panel, argued that questioning the worth of a degree in financial terms “reduces” higher education. She said that we should also ask “who for” when looking at worth, highlighting issues such as the attainment gap for black and minority ethnic students.
She was asked by a Conservative member in the audience whether the NUS’ no platform policy for banning certain speakers “simply must go”.
Ms Dunn replied: “Absolutely university is about challenge, about people challenging their deepest-held beliefs. But the no platform policy is about keeping students safe. It exists on the basis of excluding racists and fascists from campus.”
She continued: “I do not believe that BME students need to hear more racist abuse to understand the challenges of racism. I do not believe that women need to hear more misogyny to understand the effects misogyny has on them. I do not believe LGBT [students] need to hear more homophobic language to understand the threats to them.”
Another member of the panel, Joy Carter, vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester and chair of GuildHE, called for more “quality alternatives” such as degree apprenticeships to boost part-time and mature student participation.
Meanwhile, Katja Hall, deputy director-general of the CBI, said the view of business was that university was worth it, as “demand for people with higher skills will continue to grow”.
But she said that university “might not be the right route for every single person”, so a “broader debate” was needed about “which route suits which people”.