David Willetts’ Speech to HEFCE 2013

The Minister for Universities and Science spoke at the HEFCE annual meeting this week. I wasn’t there, but have read his speech and picked out a few points I found interesting.

He invokes the work of Robbins and the establishment of new universities in 1960s, then states that Robbins didn’t need to worry abou money in the way that the current government needs to.

On student numbers:

I have now asked HEFCE to consider the best way to deliver further flexibility for 2014/15 – in line with our white paper commitment that ‘the share of places liberated from number controls altogether rises year on year”.

For 2014/15, we will continue to increase student choice and to enable popular institutions to expand. HEFCE will soon be consulting on a flexible and dynamic way of responding to demand from students who can’t benefit from the current freedoms for those with a high tariff of ABB or above. We want greater freedoms and flexibilities for all institutions, not just those with high-tariff students. 2014-15 will be a step towards that.

Where student demand is low and institutions significantly under-recruit then unfilled places will be moved to those with stronger recruitment patterns. This will give greater flexibility to all institutions. It will remove some of the fear of penalties for over-recruitment and provide a sustainable means of matching supply with demand. Combined with the current ABB+ measure, this will allow for dynamism across the whole sector. It will allow all students more choice about where to study, not just those who achieve a certain attainment level – truly putting students at the heart of the system.

Two things- this is as usual only about full time undergraduate. But, and it is a very big but, this must be deeply worrying for a number of universities who have seen falls in their full time undergraduate applications.

On the public value of universities, Willetts explains that the benefits to the individual are not jus economic:

We fully understand that the value of universities comes in many forms. There is of course a public value to university and that is reflected in the substantial public support we still offer.

On outreach activities:

We have just had the highest rate ever of applications for university from the most disadvantaged quintile. In 2004 it was a scandalous 11 per cent application rate. Now it is up to a barely respectable 19.5 per cent compared with 54 per cent from the most advantaged quintile. I do not believe that just because you come from a poor family you are less suited to go to university. Nor do I believe that if you have had the misfortune of poor quality schooling this should ever bar you from higher education – the evidence is that university can transcend previous disadvantages.

Universities also need to be confident that they will gain credit for their outreach activity even when the young person chooses another university. With 3,000 secondary schools in England, and over a hundred universities, the number of potential links between them is very large indeed. Again, we have asked HEFCE and OFFA to advise on this. We are asking them to consider if we need some kind of simple infrastructure. It might be a small team of dedicated people to engage with schools and colleges and ensure their pupils get access to the right outreach activities for them. It could ensure some schools don’t fall between the cracks whilst others get a surfeit of attention.

Forgive me if I am wrong, but wasn’t AimHigher set up to do just this. Until it was abolished.

On A level reform where universities are being asked to help develop curricula:

We all understand the problem. Ask a group of university physicists about 18 year-olds’ knowledge of physics and they will be shocked at how limited it is and demand more. The same goes for the historians. For each specific discipline, the pressure from academics can easily be for more specialised knowledge sooner. And as universities control their own admissions in this country – quite rightly – their power can shape the way schools structure subject choices after GCSEs. But we cannot just let each subject discipline shape its own A level without looking at the wider requirement for university students with a breadth of understanding and knowledge: scientists with a knowledge of history; historians who can do some maths; mathematicians with a foreign language. I know that Michael Gove with his broad Scottish education recognises the importance of this point.

So, to everyone who believes in the civilising role of the university in this the fiftieth year of Robbins, I say that the role of universities in A levels reform is an opportunity to advance the cause of a broad liberal education.

I appreciate the call for a broad liberal education, and we should be well aware that such would mean a difference to how we might deliver the first year of degrees. Of course, this does not address the issue of all those students who come to us with alternative qualifications, and who in future might be be more tempted into apprenticeships.

On Key Information Sets:

For many people it is one of the most transformational experiences of their lives. We all need to communicate this. Many university applicants come from families with a history of attending higher education, or are at schools with successful records in sending people to a university. But other applicants are in the dark about the differences between different institutions, different courses and different options. That is why we launched the Key Information Set last year, so that people have access to comparable data on costs, courses and employability.

And in recognition of the limitations thereof, about which I have blogged previously:

A different approach has been proposed by the estimable Graham Gibbs in his work ‘Dimensions of Quality’ and the follow-up report. He argues that student engagement in learning is a good proxy for how well students are learning.

Engagement can be measured by a range of indicators including class/cohort size (which he attaches more importance to than contact hours); who does the teaching; close contact with lecturers; effective feedback on assessments; and student effort.

These are different indicators from those we have in our Key Information Set. The KIS has been constructed to reflect what current students say they want to know. Nevertheless, I hope we can continue to reform the wider information landscape to take account of Gibbs’ important findings. Of course, these are more complex factors to communicate. But I challenge the sector to develop a coherent and common presentation of these key factors so that students can easily access them on institutional websites.

So, some interesting things here. Clearly a man who really understands the benefits of HE, in particular its transformative power to the individual, and who appears to have an understanding of the breadth of HE provision (even if there might be some gaps, but hey, it’s a complex business).