Greg Clark has pledged to tackle quality problems at some private colleges and attacked Labour plans to “throw away” the sector’s current funding system.
The universities and science minister was also challenged to explain the purpose of the Nurse review of the research councils when he spoke at the Higher Education Funding Council for England annual conference on 4 February.
However, he told the audience at the University of London that “the dual funding system – supporting research projects and institutions – works and is here to stay”, following recent suggestions from some in the sector that it may be under threat.
Mr Clark repeatedly used the word “stability” to describe the current system, pointing to record student numbers and record numbers of disadvantaged young people entering higher education.
Although he did not refer to Labour directly, the speech was a clear attempt to draw a contrast between “stability” and the possible future under a Labour government. The opposition has been considering a plan to lower fees to £6,000, while senior figures have also voiced support for a graduate tax.
The minister said: “I think it would be a profound misjudgement to throw away a system that is delivering – and which we can now confidently extend to postgraduates – and bring on the chaos of a permanent and fundamental uncertainty in higher education finance that would result from the need to go cap-in-hand to the Treasury every year just to maintain each year’s funding.”
Suggesting that Labour might reverse the abolition of student number controls, he said it “would be wrong to have to ration student places once again”.
He continued: “And it would also be to the loss of universities and the country to cause the most talented brains to steer clear of university for fear that they would be saddled with a decades-long education tax that bore no relation to the cost of teaching.”
On private providers, Mr Clark said: “In recent years we have allowed different providers of higher education to play a bigger role. Some have added to our excellent reputation – the University of Law, for example enjoys a student satisfaction score of 92 per cent, the envy of many other institutions.”
But in an apparent admission of quality issues at some of the private providers allowed into the system, Mr Clark said he was “very clear that I will not allow any institution – not a single one – to diminish the reputation of higher education in this country that has been so hard won”.
The minister referred to new restrictions for private providers he announced last week, calling these “a set of measures to make sure that only quality alternative providers can be designated [for state student loans], that they recruit only students who are suited to their courses, and that student numbers will be tied directly to the quality of their provision”.
Speaking from the audience, Michael Arthur, the University College London provost, asked Mr Clark, in light of the UK’s “incredible” research performance, if he could “explain the thinking behind” the Nurse review of the research councils and if he could “reassure us that there will be significant higher education input” into the review panel.
The minister noted that there had been a recent triennial review of the councils – which only reported in April last year – but said this had highlighted that the issue of “collaboration” could be looked at in more detail.
He said the remit of the review was “very much to work with” the research councils and that Sir Paul was working on putting together a panel “that will reflect the councils, the universities, institutions”.