According to a report in the Guardian newspaper today, Michael Gove, the education secretary, wrote a private letter to fellow ministers urging them to back plans for a yacht to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee later this year.
He says in it that “in spite, and perhaps because of, the austere times, the celebration should go beyond those of previous jubilees and mark the greater achievement that the diamond anniversary represents”.
He adds: “My suggestion would be a gift from the nation to her majesty; thinking about [universities and science minister] David Willetts' excellent suggestion of a royal yacht, and something tangible to commemorate this momentous occasion.”
Number 10 moved quickly to distance itself from the suggestion that public money should be spent on a royal yacht, with Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, adding that “with very little money around, that this isn't top of [most people’s] list of priorities”.
However, Mr Gove has insisted that he never intended public money to be spent on the project, and this appears to be backed up by a letter sent by Mr Willetts to the Prime Minister in September.
The letter quoted by the Guardian highlights proposals for the “future ship project for the 21st century”, which are backed by Rear Admiral David Bawtree.
Further details of the project, which aims to build a cutting-edge "training and research sailing ship" are set out at www.universityoftheoceans.org/.
Mr Willetts stresses in his letter that the plan would not rely on public money, adding that it “could be used as a training resource for young people and could be made available to research funders as a research vessel”.
Despite this, the NUS has today proposed 10 alternative uses in further and higher education for the estimated £60 million that such a yacht would cost.
They include: covering the £9,000 university tuition fees for 6,500 students for one year; providing 45,000 students with the scrapped Education Maintenance Allowance for a year; and extending the first year £1,000 bursary element of the National Scholarship Prograame by two years for 30,000 students.
Other ideas put forward by the NUS are replacing more than three quarters of the budget for the scrapped Aimhigher scheme, which promoted widening access to higher education, and continuing the £60 million investment in improving college buildings that was announced last year.
Liam Burns, the NUS president, said: “Thankfully this ridiculous idea has already been ruled out, but we felt it was important to remind Mr Gove and Mr Willetts what benefits £60 million could bring to education.”