Tories likely to stick with framework if they take over

Willetts welcomes document but is wary of its narrow economic focus. Melanie Newman writes

November 12, 2009

The Government's long-term strategy for higher education will be largely adopted by the Conservative Party if it comes to power, the Shadow Universities Secretary has hinted.

David Willetts said the bulk of the higher education framework, a 10- to 15-year strategy for the sector published last week, fitted with Tory thinking. He said: "The framework reflects the influence we've been having on the debate. It's a big advance on what's been said before."

Mr Willetts said he had "sympathy" with one of the most controversial proposals, that research should become "more, not less", concentrated across the sector.

"But there's no information as to how this will affect the mechanics of the research excellence framework," he added. "The last research assessment exercise was driven by the department's attempt to spread research funds, so the message has changed dramatically. If you're going to make the case for concentration, you need to explain why there should be a certain number of universities receiving these funds and what the criteria will be."

Mr Willetts said the framework, which was launched by Lord Mandelson, the First Secretary, went too far in characterising universities as providers of support to business. The document says that funds should be directed towards courses that support priority areas of the economy, as well as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, and away from courses that "fail to meet high standards of quality or outcome".

Lord Mandelson suggested that outcomes would include graduates landing "good" jobs and the extent to which courses meet business needs.

Mr Willetts said: "We need to keep a decent sense of difference between universities and companies. The education mission of the university needs a powerful voice." He added: "The framework is heavily oriented towards STEM, but the arts and humanities are important contributors to economic performance."

The framework's call for businesses to be more involved in designing courses could lead to students emerging with too narrow a skill set, Mr Willetts suggested. "In the 1970s students were taught computer languages that died out in a few years. There's a danger that the same thing could happen with very narrow courses focused on particular areas of the economy."

Speaking in the House of Commons after the launch of the framework, Mr Willetts said the Conservatives welcomed the document's goal of increasing the range of teaching and course information available to prospective students.

But he queried the decision to put the Quality Assurance Agency in charge of releasing the information. "Surely we need to use far more imaginative ways to make the information available to students and prospective students - such as via websites and social networking sites, or third-sector and other organisations."

Mr Willetts also warned the Government to be "very careful" when dealing with university admissions and the need to take students' backgrounds into account.

"Students and their parents will lose confidence in the integrity of the admissions system if it is used for crude class warfare," he said.

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