With new student numbers set to hit an all-time high this autumn, it is no surprise that Greg Clark is keen to talk about his government’s success with regard to university access.
“It’s inspirational that the message has got out there that there is now a place for every person,” says the new minister for universities, science and cities in his first major interview with Times Higher Education. “With record numbers of people accepted, it is a really positive story,” he adds, calling particular attention to the 8 per cent increase in acceptances by students from the poorest backgrounds.
The record intake was perhaps always going to dominate his first few weeks in the job since taking over from David Willetts in July, given that A-level results came out last month. But it is clear that Clark will want to keep on talking about this “good news” on higher education – something that must have seemed very unlikely four years ago as students protested and tuition fees trebled.
Despite him representing affluent Tunbridge Wells in Kent, Clark is in many ways the perfect minister to be vocal about wider participation. Born in Middlesbrough, where his father was a milkman and his mother worked at Sainsbury’s, he went from a comprehensive to the University of Cambridge before completing a PhD at the London School of Economics. This academic grounding led to roles in consultancy and policy development before his election to Parliament in 2005.
“I am always very conscious that education has opened doors for me throughout my career,” he reflects. “Very few people from my background had the chance to go to university – in fact, very few went on to sixth form.”
That expectation has changed hugely since the 1980s, but there are still areas where higher education participation is too low, he says, comparing the 16 per cent attendance rate in the parliamentary constituency of Nottingham North with a rate of more than 50 per cent in many London boroughs.
“I am not remotely persuaded that there are not people in those places with the ability and desire to go to university,” he says.
But what about support for poorer students wanting to continue into postgraduate education?
That has arguably been Clark’s own passport into the corridors of power, but many now believe that postgraduate study has become a “middle-class playground”, with poorer students priced out by debt and the lack of a coherent loan system.
We need to talk about postgrads
Willetts, whom Clark calls a “close friend and a mentor”, has called it the “new frontier for widening participation”; so how will he tackle the problem if the Tories retain power next year?
“We need to have a serious conversation about it,” he says, adding that he would like to “focus attention on how in the medium term we could achieve all we can”. He points out that this government’s attention has been on undergraduate funding and says it “made huge strides in putting higher education on a sustainable footing”, a claim that may rankle with those worried about increasing estimates of student loan write-offs.
However, he says postgraduate funding may be an “opportunity” for him if he is still in post after the general election, adding that he hopes to keep the universities brief for a number of years.
If he does, Clark will have to tackle many more tough issues, but he is reluctant to discuss them now.
When asked if the £9,000 tuition fee cap could rise in the future, he is adamant that it will not, despite inflation eating away at the sum’s real value each year.
“£9,000 is a fair reflection of the cost of educating students – universities have reason to be pleased with this achievement that David [Willetts] made,” he states.
So what about more pressing matters, such as the rapidly expanding bill for funding alternative providers, whose students will receive nearly £1 billion in loans and grants next year?
Clark says he is untroubled by the huge growth seen in private colleges since 2010. “There was nothing surprising about that [growth],” he says, pointing out that it was an objective of policy.
“It was obvious they should have had more funding than they did and the education they provide is valued by students and is important to the country,” he adds.
He is also satisfied that the current quality assurance checks are sufficient, despite concerns about institutions with little to no track record in delivering higher education courses.
“They will be getting some pretty close attention during my time in this post,” he affirms.
Clark clearly already has a decent grasp of his extensive portfolio, as he is now making decisions on issues such as the autumn’s upcoming Science and Innovation Strategy, which will decide how billions of pounds of funding is spent for years to come.
But it seems the sector will have to wait a while longer before he spells out how he plans to address some of the major issues looming after the election.