Pam Tatlow is stepping down after more than a decade as a key voice for the UK’s modern universities, warning that a system of differential fees would be based on social “prejudice” and criticising elements of Universities UK’s stewardship of the sector.
Ms Tatlow, who steps down as MillionPlus chief executive on 31 December, joined what was then the Coalition of Modern Universities in 2004. She had previously worked for trades unions, including a spell as head of policy at train drivers’ union Aslef, and before that lectured on industrial relations in adult education.
Looking back on the key areas that she has worked on, Ms Tatlow highlighted the part-time premium giving such students extra funding, and the dramatic events around the coalition government’s 2010 decision to treble tuition fees in England to £9,000 and cut direct public funding for universities.
On the latter, she said that “leading lights in UUK at the time” had opted to “swallow wholesale the Treasury line that students would have to pay more and universities receive less in direct grant. I think that was fundamentally wrong.”
There was “a difference between discussing what the balance of contributions should be – between the state and the individual – and giving the Treasury a free lunch, which I think is what happened”, she added.
Ms Tatlow also criticised UUK’s choice of priorities on Brexit. These should include, she argued, seeking to maintain the status quo on student funding – in which continental European Union students are subject to the same fee cap as UK students and can access UK student loan funding.
“There is no real reason why we should be arguing for anything other than a reciprocal agreement on higher education funding that would continue to promote student mobility between the UK and Europe, as part of a trade agreement,” added Ms Tatlow, highlighting spending by EU students as a key factor in regional economies.
When it comes to the increasing concentration of research funding, Ms Tatlow said that “people who argue for a market in fees are much less keen on a market and competition when it comes to research funding”.
This concentration of research funding largely within a select few London and southern England institutions “has an impact on productivity, on the opportunities for graduates and the opportunities for staff”, she argued. “You would not have the UK as a leader in the creative industries if modern universities had not picked up the tab there,” she added.
On the government’s industrial strategy, Ms Tatlow called the £115 million Strength in Places fund a “drop in the ocean” that will “not enable us to support the kind of innovation in translation of research that modern universities undertake”.
Negative views of post-92 universities remain evident in some quarters of the press, also in Lord Adonis’ argument that it was a “mistake” to allow the polytechnics to become universities in 1992 and that “the lower-performing former polytechnics” should have their fees cut.
“I think that, actually, many people don’t refer to ‘former polytechnics’ and that’s a huge success,” said Ms Tatlow. “That’s just Andrew showing his age, really.”
She added: “The net result of Adonis’ arguments would simply be to lower the investment in students who have been least advantaged earlier in their lives.” The “reality is, what students are concerned most about remains how they are supported when they are studying”, she continued, saying that MillionPlus vice-chancellors wanted to see the return of maintenance grants, which were a key “factor in helping students succeed”.
But isn’t there a chance that the government, with the prime minister having pledged a “major review of university funding”, might opt to vary fee caps according to institutions’ graduate earnings? Such a system would hit many post-92 universities hard.
Ms Tatlow highlighted a 2016 study, by researchers from institutions including the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the University of Cambridge, showing that “family background is the most important determinant of graduate earnings. As soon as you’ve got that [evidence] on the table, all you display is your prejudice if you go down the differential fees road.”
Post-92 universities educate “1 million people a year, they have got global partnerships”, said Ms Tatlow, who will be succeeded at MillionPlus by Greg Walker, previously acting director of Universities Wales. “You go to the Department for International Trade and they want to promote modern universities a lot more than they did in the past.” Many nations overseas need to boost teacher and health education – areas of strength for post-92s, she argued. “We’ve got a fantastic asset that we run down at our peril.”
Ms Tatlow added: “Britain works – and I mean this literally, from town planners to…architects, scientists, radiographers, breast screening nurses, teachers – Britain works because of the graduate workforce that modern universities have delivered.”