The new universities minister has said that a review of university funding in England will look at whether tuition fees should remain at £9,250 but has claimed that Labour’s pledge to abolish fees is unrealistic.
In his first public appearance since he was appointed universities minister earlier this month, Sam Gyimah did not rule out a cut in tuition fees – a move that Jo Johnson, his predecessor, and Justine Greening, the former education secretary, had reportedly resisted consideration of.
“If you look back at the 2012 reforms when this current fee regime was introduced, I think it is right that we go back and see how it works across the system,” Mr Gyimah told an audience at Queen Mary University of London on 18 January.
Mr Gyimah declined to comment on when the major review of university funding announced by the prime minister Theresa May in October will go ahead, nor on its terms of reference.
But he claimed that opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s position on fees was disingenuous, warning that a pledge to make tuition free would only “stoke disillusionment among students” in the long run.
Mr Gyimah said that opposition parties – including the Conservatives under Michael Howard’s leadership in 2004 – had a long history of making unaffordable promises on fees.
“In my experience, every time a party has been in opposition it has promised the earth, and when it gets into government it does the opposite,” said Mr Gyimah, a former prisons minister.
“Whatever Comrade Corbyn says, I do not think we will go back to an era where students do not contribute in any way to their fees.”
Mr Gyimah – who named Abraham Lincoln and Margaret Thatcher when asked about his political heroes – said his main priority was to “deliver for students”, including ensuring they had “real choice, transparency and value for money”, as well as the chance to “participate fully in university life”.
“University should be a really momentous and memorable part of their lives so, when you read about the challenges of mental health, I think government should work with people like the National Union of Students to deliver on that,” he said.
Asked if the controversy over “safe spaces” and campus censorship was a “newspaper-generated moral panic”, Mr Gyimah replied that universities should be an “assault on the senses”.
“I want free speech done within the law and conducted in a civil and graceful manner,” he said, adding that “we do not want free speech-baiting like Milo Yiannopoulos” – a reference to the controversial former Breitbart journalist whose US campus visits have led to protests.
Asked whether he believed that vice-chancellors were paid too much, Mr Gyimah said there were “clearly some egregious cases and [the University of] Bath is an example” and he said there should be “some sense and some restraint” shown.
“What we do not want is high pay for mediocre performance,” he added.