Willetts: our plan will ease student fears

By keeping universities strong, fees reform offers hope to young, minister tells John Morgan

December 9, 2010

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, believes that student protests over tuition fees are linked to job and housing pressures on young people - and insists that a new fees regime will lighten the burden.

Mr Willetts spoke to Times Higher Education this week before MPs voted on plans by the coalition government to raise the cap on tuition fees to £9,000 a year while cutting annual public funding for higher education by £2.9 billion.

Asked whether student protesters were wrong, Mr Willetts highlighted the call for inter-generational fairness in his recent book, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took their Children's Future - And Why they Should Give it Back.

"I do understand that young people do have many anxieties - I've written a whole book about this," he said. "There is youth unemployment; there is getting started on the housing ladder. (People wonder) 'What kind of job will I get? Will I have to do unpaid internships?'

"I do understand the pressures that young people are under...I think this (protest movement) is partly a reflection of those pressures.

"We have tried to design our new system to take account of those pressures. Because the (repayment) threshold is higher, the monthly repayments under our new model will be lower than they are at the moment."

Mr Willetts called the new system "a deliberate decision to smooth the costs out across people's working lives, so they aren't as front-end loaded as they are at the moment, in people's twenties and early thirties".

Disaster-avoidance scheme

On claims that it is unfair for politicians who enjoyed free higher education to raise fees for the younger generation, Mr Willetts pointed to rapid expansion in the numbers going to university in recent decades and said he did not want that to "go into reverse".

"It would have been easier just to have cut student numbers or the value of the grant. But in terms of opportunities for young people to go to strong, properly resourced universities, it would have been a disaster."

The government plans to cut the undergraduate teaching grant by 80 per cent, removing it entirely for arts, humanities and social sciences subjects.

"What we've done is said that the basic cost of teaching across all disciplines should get to universities via the student and loan system," Mr Willetts said.

"That is as true for physics or medicine as it is for English or sociology. What remains is a special extra cost for disciplines that have higher costs - clinical medicine or lab-based subjects. It is not a judgement on the innate value of one or another subject...This is a neutral formula that is no different for the arts or humanities or any other subject."

Mr Willetts expressed "frustration" that some young people will "fear they are somehow going to have to reach into their back pocket to pay to go to university" when there will still be no upfront costs.

The government's draft guidance to the Office for Fair Access shows "how tough the conditions are going to be for universities that want to (charge fees) above £6,000", he said.

Mr Willetts called for widening participation efforts to focus not just on undergraduate social class, but also on "disabled people, ethnic minorities, mature students, part-time learners".

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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