David Willetts wants to “go further” in letting more people study for second degrees on state-backed loans, rolling back Labour’s unpopular decision to block such funding.
Speaking to Times Higher Education at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this week, the universities and science minister also said that the sector needed to “recognise the risk” it faces with Labour and its £6,000 fees policy.
In a speech at the conference, Mr Willetts announced that fee loans would be extended to part-time students in engineering, technology and computer science who already have degrees in different disciplines.
This is a small-scale reversal of Labour’s 2008 decision to withdraw funding for students taking equivalent or lower-level qualifications (ELQs) to those they already hold.
In his speech, Mr Willetts framed the move as part of a drive to encourage more women to study engineering subjects.
However, he told THE that he had been persuaded that “one reason for the part-time slump is the effect of ELQ”.
His comments come in the same week that a report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute suggests that loans have not been offered to enough part-time students to arrest a decline in the numbers taking such courses.
Mr Willetts said he would like to “go further, step by step” and remove the ELQ bar in more subjects. “One could dream of a world where we just get rid of it, but I think we’re not in that territory. But you could do it incrementally,” he added.
The cost of the move in engineering and technology subjects will eventually rise to £23 million a year, the government estimates.
After his speech, Mr Willetts spoke at a fringe event alongside Bill Rammell, the former Labour higher education minister who introduced the ELQ bar.
Mr Rammell, now vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, said that the reform was welcome “at one level”.
But he asked where the money would come from. “If it is coming from restricting access for full-time, first-degree entrants, then I think that is a cause for concern,” Mr Rammell told the event.
But Mr Willetts told THE: “The part-time loan budget, sadly, is underspent…So we have that room.”
The minister also announced that £200 million of capital funding secured in the most recent spending round – match-funded by universities or company sponsorship – would be allocated for teaching facilities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.
The funding – again aimed at getting more women studying STEM subjects – will be allocated on a competitive basis, with “evidence of commitment to equality and diversity” sought in bids.
Mr Willetts said that “some version of Athena Swan” showing institutional strategies for increasing diversity “will focus minds”, adding that the lack of women in some STEM subjects was “a waste of talent”.
In 2011, Labour unveiled a policy to lower fees to £6,000 if it were in power. Mr Willetts called Labour’s policy “a real threat to the financial viability of our universities” and to standards of student education.
He added: “All my intelligence says there’s a bit of an argument going on within Labour whether to stick with the £6,000 fee policy.”
Asked if he might be moved in a reshuffle, Mr Willetts said: “I think it is bad form for ministers to speculate about their own jobs.”