Universities Secretary says debate on tuition-fee levels will have to wait. Rebecca Attwood reports
John Denham, the Universities Secretary, has defended the Government's decision to refuse to engage in debate about the future level of undergraduate tuition fees.
In a wide-ranging interview with Times Higher Education, Mr Denham said he was "determined" that a framework for the next 10 to 15 years of higher education should be drawn up first.
"If we begin the fees debate and engage with it as a Government now, there will be no other discussion," he said.
Times Higher Education reported comments earlier this month by Adrian Smith, the Government's director-general for science and research, who said the debate on fees had been "kicked into touch" until after the general election because "neither party wanted to touch it". He said that, in the meantime, universities were "going bankrupt".
Mr Denham denied that the Government had deliberately delayed the review of fees. Although he claimed that there were "a lot of people" in the higher education sector - including many vice-chancellors - who did not want fees to be a central issue in the next general election, this was "not necessarily" his view.
"I've heard a lot of vice-chancellors say that they actually would not like to see this become an election issue because they think it makes political parties adopt positions that are governed by the next election, not by the long-term interests of the sector," Mr Denham said.
"I am determined to make sure that the debate about funding of higher education is rooted in the 10- or 15-year future of the higher education sector."
In a speech this week, Mr Denham said: "Anyone who thinks that the question is simply one of whether fees go up and, if so, by how much, may not have grasped the complexities of some of these issues."
Mr Denham confirmed that the Government planned to start the review of fees this year, but he would not say that it would conclude in 2009.
He said he did not want a repeat of the kind of "confused" debate on fees that occurred in 2004 when plans to introduce variable fees of up to £3,000 a year produced one of the largest parliamentary rebellions ever.
"What happened last time was we had the discussion about fees, we didn't have the discussion about what we wanted from universities. I am determined to reverse that debate this time round."
Mr Denham said: "I don't think any of us would argue that there is a clear set of principles that explains why the fees system operates exactly as it does.
"It doesn't matter in the short term because it has done a pretty good job ... But I think if you want to plan (for the next) 10 or 15 years you need some clear principles."
While he dismissed claims that universities would run into financial crisis in the meantime, he did say he believed that higher education needed more funding in future if it was to remain world class.
"I think any view of what sort of higher education system a country such as ours needs (over the next 10 to 15 years) will tell us that it needs to grow and it needs to have more resources," Mr Denham said. "I think it is right that we need to put more money into higher education over time as a society."
But he said he did not believe that the sector would get this funding "as of right".
It will have to "demonstrate that it is producing what society really needs, both in terms of teaching and research", Mr Denham said.
Universities must produce graduates with the right employability skills - but Mr Denham emphasised that this did not mean the death of liberal education.
"If you look at what employers say they are looking for, and you put them alongside what people talk about if they talk about the values of a liberal education, they look surprisingly similar. But we can't ignore the fact that there is a constant criticism that not all graduates come out of universities with those skills at the moment," he said.
On where more money would come from, Mr Denham would only make the point that funding could come from both public and private sources.
Asked how hard he would fight higher education's corner on public funding, Mr Denham said: "All I can do is point to the record that the Government has set this (maintaining the unit of funding) as a clear touchstone of its higher education policy.
"We've committed to it again in the Comprehensive Spending Review, and we recognise the dangers ... (of) what happened under the Tories ... That is the view that people such as me will feed into any future spending reviews."
The latest of 16 reports on the future of the sector by university and industry leaders, commissioned by Mr Denham, was published on 16 February.
The Government will produce a document setting out a 10- to 15-year framework for higher education this summer, the Universities Secretary confirmed.
Responding to criticisms that the reports were written by individuals who were hand-picked by the Government, Mr Denham said the reviews had been designed to provoke debate. He believed that the Government's approach to the reviews had been "straightforward and honest", he added.
The state we're in: Minister sets out the key issues for higher education
John Denham, the Universities Secretary, claimed that last week's report on the need for more funding for teaching illustrated "the damage done" to the sector in the past through underinvestment but also provided evidence of progress since Labour came to power in 1997.
It underlined the fact that financial issues would be "critical in meeting our ambitions in the next 10 to 15 years".
He said in a speech to a government-organised debate on higher education in London this week: "If we want to persuade our society to invest in higher education (whether through taxes or donations or fees or business investment - people have different views), then together we will need to make a compelling argument that extra investment was well spent."
He said the sector had not yet "fully won" the argument that more resources were needed. To do so, "we will need to transform the relationship between academia and the Government to ensure the most effective interchange between research and public policy".
Postgraduate policy had "fallen through the gaps" because science and education were previously split between different government departments, Mr Denham admitted.
He said there was a lack of clear public policy in taught and research postgraduate studies.
With more students doing masters degrees to improve their job prospects, questions were being raised about whether this could undermine what had been achieved on widening participation.
"In postgraduate research, the challenges are even more pressing ... Funding can be ad hoc and unstrategic, and it is not clear where responsibility lies," Mr Denham added in a speech this week.
The university system needs to become more flexible, which Mr Denham acknowledged "perhaps does imply some blurring of the full-time/part-time boundaries", with more use of credits and more freedom for students to move between institutions.
In the speech, he said: "We will surely need to move decisively away from the assumption that a part-time degree is a full-time degree done in bits."
Rather than see someone who has completed three years of a five-year part- time degree as someone who has "failed a degree", they should gain credit for what they have achieved, he said.
Mr Denham told Times Higher Education that the Government "would achieve" its target of 50 per cent of under-thirties participating in higher education. He said work on widening participation was "a long-term investment" that would bear fruit in future years.
Universities have "significantly" over-recruited in the past two years, Mr Denham claimed, and he said that local decisions about recruitment had to be kept in balance with the Government's commitment to fund higher education properly.
"If you look at the number of students who will be at university next year, it will be higher than we were expecting when we sent Hefce its grant letter," he said.
Mr Denham told Times Higher Education that he had confidence in the funding councils to handle "difficult situations", such as those facing London Metropolitan University.
"Other universities have run into difficulties before, and ways forward have been found to put them on a sound footing. I think it is really important that ministers don't even suggest that we want to assume responsibility for what is done in these individual cases ... it is a very slippery slope that leads you to engage in a whole range of other issues to do with the management of universities."