Vince Cable's views on higher education reform

15 July 2010

Commenting on the Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills Dr Vince Cable’s speech on higher education, Director General of the Russell Group, Dr Wendy Piatt said: 

“We welcome the Business Secretary’s recognition of the vital importance of universities to the economy of this country. There is an urgent need to secure additional investment in the UK’s research universities if they are to remain the world-leading institutions that they are today and the crucial foundation for the UK’s future economic success and prosperity. 

“If we do not invest in a sector that has already been hit by over a £1 billion in cuts, the consequences for our economy and society will be devastating. Competitor nations are pumping billions of pounds into their universities, recognising that they will be crucial to future national success. Without new sources of income for our universities, the UK’s global standing will decline.

“Dr Cable is also right to encourage greater concentration of research funding in the most outstanding institutions and a prioritisation of quality over the expansion of student numbers.

“As the Business Secretary notes, graduates benefit significantly from their university education and so should make a greater contribution to the costs of their degrees. Graduates, employers and society all benefit from higher education, but taxpayers currently foot the lion’s share of the bill. This is unsustainable.

“As Dr Cable suggested, the current system is very similar to a graduate tax, with no upfront payment and graduates only paying back a small fraction of their income when it reaches £15,000. In fact, the current system has all the positive features of a graduate tax without the downsides. We, therefore, do not agree that a pure graduate tax would be a better or a fairer system. 

“All the disadvantages of a pure graduate tax, as outlined in the Russell Group’s evidence to the Browne review, explain why no other country has yet implemented this system of graduate repayments. We are particularly concerned that it would be many years before revenue from a graduate tax becomes available, so until then there would be a requirement for a very major upfront investment in universities by Government – a very costly solution.

“Other potential problems with a graduate tax include that it can be problematic to even define what is meant by ‘a graduate’ (which qualifications lead to ‘a graduate’?). There would also be no way of recouping a tax from EU students or British students who live abroad so a significant amount of revenue would be lost and incentives introduced for our brightest students to leave the country.

“The fairest and most effective way of securing graduate contributions in order to protect the quality of UK higher education and its contribution to economic growth is through higher fees and income-contingent loans. 

New forms of HE provision

“Russell Group universities are constantly seeking new ways of responding to the changing needs and expectations of students and to ensure students from all backgrounds have a good chance of gaining a place at our universities. However, any new ways of providing and assessing higher education courses must be carefully analysed to ensure that the high quality teaching and research-intensive learning experience we offer is preserved and sheer diversity of HE recognised"

Two-year degrees

"Two-year accelerated degrees may be entirely appropriate for some courses and universities and could cut costs for student support. However, they are unlikely to work well for many of the courses offered by Russell Group universities, which are academically intensive and in many cases laboratory-based.  The research-led learning at Russell Group institutions takes place in an environment where leading academic staff are engaged in both research and teaching and much of this activity takes places during the ‘holiday’ periods.”


Reserving places at universities

“We are happy to discuss with key stakeholders any new ideas to support students from all backgrounds to access their courses. However, schemes like the Texas 10% rule which guarantees admission to a specified percentage of the highest achievers in school classes to the public university of their choice are now considered not only to have failed in meeting their objectives, but even to have been counter-productive. Any schemes based on this model risk diverting resources from other more successful programmes which our universities have introduced to help and support bright students from non-traditional backgrounds. 

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