Russell Group leaders suggesting that post-92 universities have far lower costs and could thus have their fees cut are “just misinformed”, according to the Middlesex University vice-chancellor.
Tim Blackman spoke to Times Higher Education as post-92 Middlesex launched a new five-year strategy at City Hall, London, with Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, also joining the defence of modern universities at the event.
Labour peer and former education minister Lord Adonis has repeatedly said in recent weeks that it was a “mistake” for the then-Conservative government to turn the polytechnics into universities in 1992. Nick Timothy, former adviser to Theresa May, tweeted in support of the peer: “Turn new unis into polytechnics, [introduce] better vocational [qualifications], give young proper choice.”
The prime minister, who as shadow education secretary once described some modern universities as having “lost their way” after the move away from polytechnic status, has announced a “major review” of university funding. With Ms May having also spoken about the need for “differential fees”, these events may set alarm bells ringing with post-92 universities.
But Professor Blackman said: “I’m not worried at all about what Andrew Adonis is saying. How could you go back to the binary divide? We’ve got more that unites us than divides across the post-92s and the older universities.”
Graduate employability, impact in local communities and internationalisation were common priorities for all universities, he added.
Two Russell Group vice-chancellors, speaking on an anonymous basis, were quoted in a Guardian article as discussing the “much lower” costs at post-92 universities and potential scope for the government to consider variable fees.
Asked about that view, Professor Blackman said: “The idea that our fee could simply be reduced because we’ve got lower-cost subjects is just misinformed.
“We’ve got a very diverse portfolio of subjects at Middlesex, like most of the post-92 institutions. We’re delivering science and technology, we’re delivering art and design, performing arts. These are not cheap subjects. In many cases they are as expensive as heavy engineering to deliver. They are requiring small groups, personalised interactive teaching, cutting-edge facilities.”
Mr Taylor, who succeeded Lord Adonis as head of the Number 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair, told Times Higher Education that while he thought the peer’s interventions were “timely and necessary” on some sector issues, “what I don’t agree with him about is that the way to respond to the challenges facing the sector…is to try to turn back the clock 25 years”.
He added: “The reason I came here [to speak at the strategy launch event] is because I think Tim [Blackman] and Middlesex University a good example of the kind of connected, innovative university that we need right now.”
Mr Taylor continued: “I think if you asked the vast majority of people [who have graduated from] new universities whether they valued the experience, valued that degree, whether it helped them in their jobs, they will say yes. They are the people we should listen to first and foremost.”
A Russell Group spokesman said: “The resources going into the system have a direct impact on the quality of the educational experience that universities are able to provide. This is not about one group of universities or another. It is about the sustainability of the system as a whole and maintaining the UK’s position as a world-leader in higher education.”