Minister downplays potential course cuts

May 27, 2005

The threat of university course closures may not be as widespread as some fear, Bill Rammell, the new Higher Education Minister, said this week.

Mr Rammell told The Times Higher that he was "not convinced" that a number of subjects deemed by the Government to be of national importance - such as chemistry - were vulnerable to disproportionate cuts.

The minister said: "I'm not convinced that the evidence is there... but that's not to say that if evidence comes to light I won't respond to it."

Mr Rammell stressed that he did not want to prejudge the conclusions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, due to report to the Government about subjects of "national strategic importance" next month.

Mr Rammell, a former Foreign Office minister, who held Harlow for Labour at the election with a majority of 97, also conceded that "mood music" about visa charges may not have helped universities recruit overseas students.

He said: "It's a reality that UK Visas has to wash its own face financially. But I am persuaded that it is also about mood music and the message it sends out about wanting overseas students here, which we very much want."

Mr Rammell rejected the idea that graduates might be asked to work to the age of 70. He said: "There would be a perception problem, at least when it comes to attracting people into higher education, if you are telling them they have to work five years longer."

The former student union officer and a manager at the University of London in the 1990s said that he now held his ideal job in politics. "I've worked for ten years in the university sector and I'm passionate about access," he said.

"If you look at the figures, if you come from a professional background, in socioeconomic groups A and B, 80 per cent go on to higher education. In groups D and E it's 15 per cent. That's unacceptable. It's unacceptable on an intellectual level but it's also my own life experience. I grew up in a council house, went to a comprehensive and then, by going to university, saw my own life chances transformed."

Spelling out his vision for the future, he said one priority was to better communicate the tuition-fee and bursary changes to the public. "I'd send out a plea to people who have opposed the principle to help us make sure students understand the system," he said.

Mr Rammell said he wanted to see universities play a greater role in the economic regeneration of their regions and work more closely with schools, colleges and community groups - whether offering extra tuition for "gifted and talented" pupils or opening up campus facilities for community use out of term time.

But Mr Rammell also conceded that his own views on tuition fees had changed since the fee-sceptic stance he took in 1997. He said that adding "three to four pence to income tax and spending all the proceeds on higher education" was "cloud cuckoo land".

Mr Rammell said: "I don't mind admitting that my view has shifted in light of the evidence and the reality. We had to do something about funding, but the reason that I've been able to go down that path with integrity is that you have to have a system in place that does something that protects and encourages access."

paul.hill@thes.co.uk

Leader, page 16

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