The universities and science minister came under pressure from Labour MPs during Department for Business Innovation and Skills questions in the House of Commons today.
The session following media reports on major budget problems within BIS, including an overspend on student support at private colleges – where Mr Willetts has pursued a policy of expansion.
And the National Audit Office has also published a highly critical report on BIS’ handling of the student loans system.
Mr Byrne, the shadow universities, science and skills minister, said that while Mr Willetts was away “batting for Britain in Kazakhstan, the National Audit Office was battering his handling of the student loans system”.
Mr Byrne continued: “When did he discover students at private colleges were soaking up public subsidies at such a rate there is now an overspend of hundreds of millions of pounds?
“How did he lose control in such spectacular fashion?”
Mr Willetts replied that Higher National Diplomas and Higher National Certificates – the Pearson-provided qualifications where the bulk of public-backed student recruitment at private providers has occurred – were “legitimate and valuable qualifications”.
Labour had provided “no controls whatsoever on the designation of alternative providers – we have introduced controls”, Mr Willetts argued.
Paul Blomfield, Labour MP for Sheffield Central, asked the minister why he “repeatedly rejected warnings on uncontrolled financial support to students in private higher education colleges”.
Mr Willetts replied that in the last year, there had been 87 applications for designation from private providers – of which 18 had been approved and 69 rejected.
That was “effective quality control”, he added.