David Willetts comments on challenges facing universities

10 June 2010

Commenting on the Universities Minister David Willetts’ remarks on paying for universities, Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities said:

“David Willetts rightly notes the urgent need to secure additional investment if we are to maintain world-leading universities that make a vital contribution to the UK’s prosperity.  Competitor nations are pumping millions of pounds into their universities, recognising that they will be crucial to future national success in a global knowledge economy.

“Students, state and employers all benefit hugely from HE but, at the moment, the tax payer foots the lion’s share of the bill. So an increase in graduate contributions to the cost of higher education is the fairest and only viable option for solving the funding shortfall in the system. The introduction of variable fees has had no adverse impact on recruiting a diverse range of students.

“David Willetts is right to stress that student loans are totally different from credit card debt. There is no upfront payment for students when they enter university.  Graduates only begin to make repayments when their earnings reach £15,000 and even then they only contribute a fixed proportion of their income (9% of income above £15,000). It is the income-contingent nature of repayments which makes these loans so different from most other forms of debt.

“In our submission to Browne’s review about options for solving the urgent funding problems in higher education, a key priority was to drive up the quality of experience offered to students. By lifting the cap and creating a more differentiated system, combined with better and clearer information, students would be offered a clear choice between the different kinds of learning experience provided by different institutions. Lifting the cap would generate real competition within the sector, empower students to become more demanding, and is one of the most effective means of providing more incentives for universities to continue improving the learning experience they offer to students.

“Russell Group universities are constantly seeking new ways of responding to the changing needs and expectations of students.  In particular, they have been making innovations in provision specifically aimed at increasing access to Russell Group universities by students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds.  For example, many Russell Group universities offer distance learning programmes and some offer courses where the students take their first year or two in a local FE college with subsequent years taken at the university itself.

“However, any new ways of providing and assessing higher education courses – like the idea put forward by David Willetts - must be carefully analysed to ensure that the high quality teaching and research-intensive learning experience we offer is preserved."

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