Universities minister defends higher education reforms

There are three clear lines of attack on the government’s higher education reforms that I have seen, not least on the pages of Education Guardian. The first claim is that we are removing the public subsidy for higher education. The second is that we are explicitly seeking to copy the US system of higher education. And the third claim is that we are reductionists who value arts and humanities less than sciences.

Higher education cannot be entirely insulated from the savings necessary to reduce the deficit. So, in future, the key beneficiaries of higher education will pay more of the costs, but only where they can afford to do so and via a more progressive loan system. This does not mean the taxpayer is withdrawing from higher education. Around one-third of the money loaned to students will never be repaid because of the protections that are built in to protect low earners. The maximum maintenance grants paid to students from lower-income households will increase. We will continue to pay teaching grants to universities for more expensive and also vulnerable subjects.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the effect will be to shift from having 60% of the costs of higher education funded by taxpayers and 40% by private sources, to 40% funded by taxpayers and 60% by private sources. That is not a scorched-earth policy. We calculate that the total income of universities for teaching could rise by 10% between now and 2014-15. And none of these figures take account of the £4.6bn a year science andresearch budget, which has been ring-fenced for the next four years.

A key part of the reforms is to distribute the available resources so they follow the decisions of students more closely. We will, for example, liberalise the student number controls that are imposed upon each institution. Ensuring that funding follows learners is not some radical new idea. It is in line with the recommendations of all three major postwar reports on higher education – the Robbins report of 1963, the Dearing report of 1997 and the Browne report of 2010.

Many of the coalition’s critics claim we are so bedazzled by America that we wish to impose their higher education system upon England. There are, of course, parts of that country’s university system that we could do well to emulate – they lead the world in research output, knowledge transfer and attracting foreign students. But there will continue to be some really important differences between our higher education sector and theirs. For example, the US lacks our comprehensive student finance arrangements, our robust quality assurance regime and our focus on widening participation.

We do want to see a more diverse sector with new opportunities for alternative providers such as FE colleges and new entrants. But we are not proposing a free-for-all and we can learn from some of the quality control problems that have arisen in the US. Indeed, the level playing field for providers of all types that we are committed to could mean more requirements, not fewer, on private providers. If their students are to be entitled to student support, they will need to keep to the same quality assurance and fair access rules that apply to others.

The third misconception about our policies is that we do not value arts and humanities. I was scrupulous not to favour one set of disciplines over another in the science and research settlement. For teaching, universities currently receive a tuition fee of around £3,300 and a grant of around £2,750 for each arts and humanities student, making around £6,000 in total. In 2012 prices, this would be more like £6,350. So a fee of, say, £8,000 represents an increase of over £1,600 for each arts student. For other students the same fee would mean an increase of about £600.

As I travel around the world, I find that policymakers, academics and others want to know more about our plans to reduce the deficit, protect student numbers and deliver more support to the most needy students at the same time. We will go on learning from the best evidence from around the world as we roll out our reforms and as we prepare our forthcoming innovation and research strategy. But policymaking tends to be reciprocal, and I expect other countries to monitor our reforms closely and to learn from them when they prove to deliver more opportunity and more fairness.