Speaking at a conference on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Lord Robbins’ report on higher education, the universities and science minister said the start of the Universities’ Central Council on Admissions in 1961 was the turning point for the UK’s higher education system, rather than the much-lauded report by the London School of Economics director two years later.
Mr Willetts told an audience at the Institute of Education, University of London, on 24 October that Ucca – now Ucas – had “created a nationwide applications system that brought the system we have towards student choice”.
Unlike more “regionalist” systems in the US and Germany, where students generally apply to their local university, people were encouraged to pick universities across the country.
Allowing universities to increase the number of student places for high-achieving pupils – part of the coalition’s 2010 reforms – extended the idea of student choice set in motion by the creation of Ucca, Mr Willetts told the conference.
“Marketisation is making the dangerous choice of taking the system of the 1960s seriously,” he said. Those who criticised his plans had to say “if they disagree with the fact that more students get their first choice or was the mistake [introducing] Ucca?”, he asked.
Nonetheless, Mr Willetts, who published his own review of the Robbins report last week, welcomed many of the 1963 report’s recommendations, including its call for the university sector to double in size.
Contrasting his view of higher education with that of other MPs, he said: “You have a very different view about university expansion if you represent a constituency where you have only 23 per cent of young people going to university.”
He also rejected suggestions by Sir David Watson, principal of Green Templeton College, Oxford, that the UK risked a “sub-prime” student loan crisis, as low-earning graduates struggled to repay loans for £9,000 tuition fees. But he admitted the absence of funding options for postgraduates was an issue, saying it was “the new social mobility barrier”.