'What the hell do you want?'

December 24, 2004

Howells has a question for academics, and the DFES plans to clarify fees, reports Paul Hill

A high-profile campaign to explain the 2006 university funding changes to academics, students, parents and teachers will be a top priority of Ruth Kelly, the new Education Secretary.

On her first day in charge of her department, Ms Kelly asked junior ministers their main concerns for next year.

Kim Howells, Higher Education Minister, said that at the top of the list should be explaining the impact of variable tuition fees, grants and bursaries.

In an interview with The Times Higher , Dr Howells said that the Government was buying airtime on radio to explain the changes, which will see upfront fees abolished in 2006 in favour of a charge of up to £3,000, to be paid back after graduation.

Dr Howells added that "improving the esteem of further education" and giving extra support to part-time students would be priorities for 2005.

He said: "With higher education, there's still a job of work to do about communicating the new funding arrangements for 2006 - so few people seem to know what they are and that includes MPs who presumably voted for it.

"Lots of academics either don't know about the new arrangements or wilfully pretend they don't know, which gives me cause for concern."

Dr Howells also stressed that the Government would protect academic standards by maintaining funding per student - even if that meant sacrificing the 2001 manifesto goal of sending 50 per cent of young people into higher education within ten years.

Last week, in his final act as Education Secretary, Charles Clarke wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England to confirm that the Government would maintain funding per student at its current level in real terms up to 2008.

But Mr Clarke's letter also reveals that the Government's planned increase in student numbers over the next few years - an extra 82,000 students - will raise the proportion of young people entering university from 44 per cent to 45.5 per cent.

The settlement leaves the Government facing the prospect of finding funds for thousands of extra places after 2008 if the 50 per cent target is to be met by the end of the decade.

Ministers have more recently recast the manifesto pledge as meaning a target of "moving towards" 50 per cent participation.

But Dr Howells said: "I don't think we'll be short of applications, but we have to find ways of funding it.

"I'm notorious for not being an admirer of these sorts of targets. You happen to turn a good news story into a bad news story about being a few points off a target.

"My aim is to make sure we keep that unit funding up. But there's a quality issue.

"You could, if you wanted, fill the universities up with students like they do in many continental countries and have 600 people in a lecture. But I don't think it's the way to do things, we have to protect standards. If we fail to meet the 50 per cent mark, I'm not going to worry too much.

"The important thing is to produce fully rounded human beings who are going to make society and the economy stronger."

Dr Howells also said he favoured striking a deal between regional development agencies, universities and Hefce to protect subjects threatened with closure but which the Government deemed to be of "national strategic importance".

"Academics need to make their minds up about what the hell they want," he said.

"If they want a Big Brother government to step in, they need to say so.

It's not what I hear, though."

paul.hill@thes.co.uk

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