Speaking at a seminar held by the Westminster Education Forum yesterday, the universities and science minister said: “There does seem to be a view that I see every week in the Times Higher that there is a particular vendetta against the arts and humanities and that is really not how we in the coalition see the world.”
His other priorities are producing a paper on the future direction of research and innovation, and scrutinising the postgraduate market.
Mr Willetts also revealed that the government had planned to include a chapter on Britain’s place in the global higher education market in its recent White Paper on universities, but the idea was dropped as it was decided it “did not fit” with the document’s focus on the English undergraduate teaching experience.
Despite its absence from the paper, Mr Willetts said he wanted to see more British universities setting up operations abroad and UK students studying overseas to build up credits towards a domestic degree.
Answering questions at the event in central London, he said: “There was a chapter on internationalisation but I think we decided against it. It was not going to fit in with the central focus on the English teaching academic experience issue.”
The seminar also heard from other speakers including the new National Union of Students president, Liam Burns, and Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK.
Mr Burns used his speech to attack the government’s focus on fee waivers as a way to improve access for poorer students, saying the method was an “elaborate con trick” given it lowered costs to the Treasury but did not put money in people’s pockets.
“I want to see solid evidence that waivers have an effect on the choices of those from the poorest backgrounds. Until we do, far from being encouraged, they should be banned,” he said.
Mr Burns also called for the scrapping of the National Scholarship Programme, which he said was directing far too much money towards fee waivers and was confusing potential students. “It’s not national, it’s not being used for scholarships, I’m not convinced it’s even a programme,” he said.
Ms Dandridge, meanwhile, warned that the government’s White Paper proposals risked creating a “tripartite” system with universities either charging £9,000 fees and competing for high-achieving students; bunching at £7,500 and bidding for “marginal” places; or undercutting everyone with a fee of less than £6,000.