From the frontbench to a new seat of learning

Ex-university minister Bill Rammell talks about life on the other side of the fence. Simon Baker writes

January 27, 2011

During the previous round of university tuition-fee reforms, Bill Rammell toured the country trying to convince students that top-up fees were fair. This time around, the former higher education minister will be on the receiving end of government policy.

As the University of Plymouth's new deputy vice-chancellor, his background in politics could prove to be very useful to the institution as it tackles the challenges facing all English universities in the run-up to the new fees regime in 2012.

Mr Rammell will lead on the student experience and internationalisation at Plymouth and, in an interview with Times Higher Education, he criticised what he described as the "false debate" that has taken place in the UK's national newspapers over the latter issue.

Students from outside the European Union do not affect the cap on UK places, so arguments that they are crowding out home students are misplaced, he pointed out.

"As long as they are integrated properly and the numbers are not too big, overseas students can enhance the student experience for everyone," he said.

Mr Rammell was Labour MP for Harlow for 13 years before he lost his seat in last year's general election and he was minister for higher education from 2005 to 2008. In the frontbench role, he helped to drive Tony Blair's second Initiative for International Education, including its target to increase overseas student numbers by tens of thousands.

But, as a graduate in French who taught in Paris for a time, he said it was just as important to encourage more UK students to study abroad.

Mr Rammell also stressed that there were "serious question marks" over access to university given the decision to scrap Aimhigher, the widening-participation scheme, ahead of the introduction of higher fees.

"There may well have been an increase in fees whichever party was in power, but the level of increase is higher than necessary and is being driven by the 80 per cent cut in the teaching grant," he said.

In the new funding climate, universities would have to "differentiate themselves from the pack".

"That is one of the things that brought me to Plymouth - the fact it has spent time thinking about that," he explained, in a reference to the institution's "enterprise university" tag.

Mr Rammell - the second former Labour minister since the election to take on a higher education role after Charles Clarke became visiting professor in politics at the University of East Anglia - also has experience of student union management. During the 1990s, he was general manager of the student unions at the University of London and King's College London.

At ULU, he worked with award-winning comedian Ricky Gervais prior to his rise to stardom. Mr Gervais hit the big time thanks to his portrayal of an excruciating boss, David Brent, in television comedy The Office, which he co-created.

Mr Rammell said the comedian was a "good mate", but added: "I am not David Brent, but I know who is and I am not going to say - that is a pact between the two of us."

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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