DIUS director-general lambasts 'horrible' MPs

April 10, 2008

The Government's director-general for higher education has called MPs on the Public Accounts Committee "horrible people" after they criticised universities' dropout rates.

Ruth Thompson, the senior civil servant for higher education at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, made the comment last week in a wide-ranging speech on the state of the sector at the Association of University Administrators conference.

She also sympathised with universities' concerns about excessive government intervention, and indicated that the withdrawal of £100 million in funding for students taking equivalent or lower level qualifications than those they already hold was as much to signal a "shift of emphasis" in policy as it was about saving money.

Dr Thompson defended university completion rates in the wake of a report by the Public Accounts Committee earlier this year that said that despite the investment of £800 million to tackle dropout rates, there had been no improvement over the past five years.

The report said 22 per cent of students do not finish their course at their original institution, and the figure has not improved since 2002.

"We actually have a really high completion rate in our system," Dr Thompson said. "I know the Public Accounts Committee didn't think much of our completion rate, but they should jolly well get out more in my view, go to a few other countries and see what we're up against."

She said: "I was at the Public Accounts Committee with David Eastwood (chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England), and horrible people they were. It was an object lesson in not allowing a report that actually was quite a good news story to go anywhere near a load of MPs whose job it is to make difficulties."

Responding to criticism that DIUS intervenes too much in university affairs, she said: "It really struck (DIUS) that universities have said how important it is to their success ... that they are autonomous.

"On the other hand, the other thing that has struck our ministers is that the leadership in the higher education sector does tend to say, 'What is the framework in which the Government wants us to operate?' It's our view that we've got to get the autonomy bit right and the framework bit right."

Asked to justify the decision to cut ELQ funding, Dr Thompson said: "There's no point my beating about the bush ... It was partly about finances, but as much about a shift of emphasis, and to signal a shift of emphasis, as it was about money."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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