Former Education Secretary bemoans progress

June 25, 2009

Charles Clarke has reproached the Government and universities for failing to act quickly enough to tackle the challenges facing higher education.

The former Education Secretary used the 1994 Group's annual lecture in London last week to review progress towards the objectives he set out in a White Paper in 2003.

He bemoaned the "lack of political maturity" in the discussion about tuition fees, noting that the long-awaited review of the subject had been delayed owing to the proximity of the next general election, a move that had effectively frozen debate on the issue.

He said there was still a "massive dislocation" between industry and universities, adding that "employers don't see the benefit to them of higher education".

He claimed that the sector had, to some extent, "confounded the doubters" with its commitment to improving access to higher education, but added: "I wouldn't say we've made real progress opening universities up to people from the poorest backgrounds - there haven't been the steps forward all of us would have wanted to see."

Mr Clarke, MP for Norwich South, was also critical of some institutions' lack of commitment to Labour's target to get 50 per cent of young people into higher education.

"I still believe there are significant parts of the university world that are not signed up to that," he said. He added that in 2003, he had envisaged that work-focused foundation degrees would play a much larger role in driving up participation rates.

Shifting his focus to teaching and learning, he said the extent to which universities try to meet the needs of students was "very variable".

With the introduction of fees, he said, it was expected that a greater "consumer element would come into play", but he was now "doubtful that there has been the progress ... we wanted to see six years ago".

Mr Clarke offered hope to those who doubt Lord Mandelson's commitment to universities, which are now part of his remit in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. He said that despite their political differences, he found the First Secretary to be someone who would "want to get it right".

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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