Ministers ‘working to preserve stability of whole English sector’

Education secretary Gavin Williamson pressed on whether government wants to ‘pick and choose’ which universities to save

April 29, 2020
Houses of Parliament at night

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has rejected suggestions that the Westminster government is resisting a £2 billion sector-wide bailout for higher education because it would prefer to choose which individual universities are given financial support.

Speaking to a hearing of the Commons Education Committee, held via video link on 29 April, Mr Williamson said his department was “working with the sector to pull together a package of measures” that would “preserve the stability of the whole sector”, rather than focus support on any particular type of universities.

The measures would be announced “in the near future”, he said.

His comments followed a Financial Times report on 23 April that claimed that Universities UK’s request for a rescue package was being resisted by the Treasury despite warnings from the sector body that some universities could go bust without “proactive support” from the government. The UUK proposals also include a “stability measure” that would see institutions restricted in the number of UK and European Union undergraduates they can recruit next academic year.

Fleur Anderson, Labour MP for Putney, asked Mr Williamson to address speculation that some parts of the government actually wanted an “admissions free-for-all or a Wild West…that would leave some universities more financially exposed”.

“You, or the Treasury, would be able to pick and choose who would be saved rather than saving the sector in a more strategic way,” said Ms Anderson, who entered Parliament in December 2019 as Labour’s only gain from the Conservatives at the general election.

Mr Williamson said he was “working more broadly with the sector to bring stability to the system”, although his “main concern is students in universities and making sure they have the stability to finish their undergraduate or postgraduate degrees”.

He added that he was keen to make sure that the government was “safeguarding the amazing research resource that universities have and the important role they play in terms of our nation by making sure we are on the forefront of science and technology”.

Mr Williamson also mentioned the “important role that universities play in the economies of their local communities”, saying that he wanted to “preserve the stability of the whole sector”.

“That is why we are working closely with Universities UK to deliver that,” he said.

At this stage, the government could “not put a definitive number on what universities will feel” in terms of the loss of revenue from international students unable to study in the UK next year, he said.

However, he continued, he was working with the Home Office to “look at flexibilities in terms of English-language testing so that universities can continue their international recruitment”.

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