Russell Group response to the Higher Education White Paper

28 June 2011

Responding to the publication of the Government’s White Paper on Higher Education today, Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of 20 leading universities, said:

“We welcome much of what’s in today’s White Paper including the Government’s commitment to a more diverse and competitive higher education sector which ensures high standards and puts students first. However, we are concerned that some proposals – like the lifting the cap for students with AAB grades and the ‘core and margin’ model – may have unintended consequences and therefore need careful implementation. We also remain concerned that the proposals on access do not fully recognise the root cause of the problem and the great work already being done to improve participation.  

“We recognise that the high cost of the student support package requires some controls in student numbers and believe that maintaining quality is more important than increasing overall student numbers.  We also agree that universities with high demand for courses from highly-qualified students should be allowed to expand.  But care should be taken to ensure that such a very selective lifting of the cap doesn’t make it harder for some universities to maintain teaching in strategically important subjects like sciences and languages.

“We are also concerned that under the ‘core and margin’ proposal student numbers could be cut from all institutions, including those which have strong demand from well-qualified applicants and offer high quality teaching. We are not convinced that re-distributing those student places to institutions charging lower fees will necessarily drive up quality or improve student choice.

“Since we are confident in the quality of our degrees, we remain relaxed about the growth in private universities in response to student demand, as long as this growth does not significantly increase pressure on the already expensive student support system.

“Russell Group universities are absolutely committed to ensuring our doors are wide open to able students from all backgrounds.  That is why we invest millions of pounds every year on bursaries and access schemes and plan to redouble those efforts over the next few years.  We will also seriously consider the proposed new access schemes as we are always looking for new ideas to tackle this problem.

“However, we remain concerned that the Government’s proposals on access risk focusing too much on regulation rather than resolving the real problems: underachievement at school and poor advice on the best choices of A-level subjects and university degree course. The emphasis on targets and powers for OFFA could distract attention, effort and resources from the many successful access schemes run by Russell Group Universities or even disincentivise universities from continuing with some activities in deprived areas which target the students who are the hardest to reach.

“Given the cuts to the teaching budget in England, the fairest and most effective way to ensure students receive the world-class education they need and deserve is through the graduate contribution scheme introduced by the Government.  At the same time, it is vital that the Government continues to invest directly in higher education teaching, particularly in high cost subjects.  We welcome the White Paper’s recognition of the critical role universities play in stimulating economic growth in the UK.” 

Notes for editors

  1. £75m is the total ‘OFFA-countable’ expenditure on access, funded from additional fee income in 2008-09. A wide range of access initiatives undertaken in our universities that are funded from other sources, including donation and endowment income, are not included. 
  2. The Russell Group’s guide Informed Choices is praised in today’s White Paper for its helpful guidance to teachers and students on the best A level subjects to study to secure places on courses at Russell Group Universities..

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