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Conversations with the Universities Minister, A New Hope or the Empire Strikes Back?

By | Published February 21, 2018

Many people way have been unaware of it but last Friday the Universities Minister visited Brum for a “conversation with students” to help him adjust to his new and exciting role. Though 11am seemed too early for many students, plenty of staff and guild representatives were in attendance.

After being introduced by the Vice Chancellor as the minister with the longest title in government (it’s Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation) the interrogation began. The first few questions were from one of the universities staff and then an open floor for the more challenging views of students in attendance later.

The first one hit hard, asking what he expected to get out of these conversations with students. He admitted that our experiences were very different from his own 20 years previously and at a time when the divide between young and old seems so huge it’s important for him to listen to our views and “talk to them not about them”. In his mind this was difficult, because no one person’s views are alike or unifying. The question was finished with the typical rhetoric about students being the future of the country but showed how this could be a new dawn for government student relations.

The questions followed on fast from the introduction, with the first asking what help the previous minister Joe Johnson had given him. He said that Joe had impressed on him the importance of students getting value for money and that new rating systems like the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) should be allowed the reap returns rather than being shafted in favour of new initiatives.

The next question dealt on how he would change the agenda, for which he focused on a consistent phrase “value for money”. He wanted more transparency about how Universities and degrees work and how people choose them noting that a degree is only worth the paper it’s written on. As a BAME MP he said another priority of his was widening participation in university and changing it from being the preserve of white middle class students. For him this meant giving State schools a fairer chance against Independent ones and that the coaching of students from rich backgrounds through private tutors and fancy schools ruins the university experience for those that work hard to get in. The minister also said he’d focus on the experience once you got that foot in the door and how that affected what you took away from university. On this he explained the fees aren’t the only expensive part of university and that things like rent and fees for sports clubs and society can exclude some students from the full academic experience.

After he mentioned the elephant in the room it seemed only appropriate for the next question to concern fees. He started by saying that the current level of fees, although high, meant we had world class institutions. Although pointing out that the government already pays for most students fees through writing them off, he criticised the plans of Jeremy Corbyn saying they would do the opposite and create universities “for the few not the many”. That said, he said there will be a review into all post 18 education as the system works but could always be improved.

In the next question he stated the government’s commitment to universities as they produce world leading research and development as well as boosting the local economy and providing 1 in 50 of the jobs in Birmingham. When questioned on the new role of the Office for Students (OfS) he mentioned the need for a regulator due to the diversity of institutions from research focused traditional universities to more modern skills focused ones. He then mentioned the importance of free speech and that the office has a wide remit to enforce the freedom of speech.

After this point all questions came from the audience, leading to a diverse range of questions. The first one dealt with postgrad students and how they will be represented in this new system. He was adamant that he will represent all students and agreed that you can’t typecast students and thus they have different needs due to the differences in age and role within universities. Post Brexit, he assured us that British universities will remain part of the European Scientific Research institution and that the UK will continue to lead and direct what research is done.

One question was on the recent Space X launch and what Britain can do to keep us, with the minister countering that the UK is a leader in space technology and that we may not have a car in space but we are doing a lot to transform our economy towards this sector. Another question focused on what the UK can do to help developing countries improve their educational sectors. His response focused on the international aid budget but guaranteed us that the UK will continue to promote the value of education internationally through both aid and universities.

One question from Guild President, Ellie Keiller, focused on the hidden costs of universities such as rent and food and what could be done to improve this. He said that unfortunately this is outside his remit, countering that students unions can be important tools in fighting high rents. He shared her concern saying that it would be hard to be an excellent student when these issue weigh on your mind. Another guild question from our education officer focused on the crusade for free speech. The minister affirmed his commitment to an open and fair debate pointing to American universities as an example of where censorship has gone too far. He expressed concern about the harassment of MP’s and in particular Jacob Rees-Mogg at recent university events. He pointed out that the OfS has the responsibility for this issue and that only directly threatening speech should be throttled rather than restricting an open debate. He also faced a hostile question from the Vice Chancellors Question Time posed to the VC by Dan Wootton about what do foreign campuses bring the UK student experience. He said the VC are right to be questioned on this issue and that he reports to students not the VC.

He finished by asking two questions, one on what does “value for money” mean to students as he thinks it’s widely used in Whitehall without any clear understanding of what it is. The answers ranged showing that value was were specific to each student, however one theme occurred throughout, that value for money shouldn’t just focus on just degrees. Many commented that the debate shouldn’t revolve around the concept of “investment in the future” as this promotes students choosing courses that have high rates of return like economics or engineering rather than drama or art. Instead many argued that choosing a course that you loved and enjoyed lead to more value in the degree. His final question was on what we would do in his shoes and offered some interesting responses. One advocated trying to get more students voting conservative again, another advocating more ministers engaging students, and I finally got a chance to speak, saying that I would look into league tables to ensure fairer and transparent rankings for prospective students. Overall from the event the Minister seemed invested in the conversation and keen to hear student’s views and grievances. Could this mark the beginning of a shift in government thinking on catering for the views of students, well that is a question for when he returns next year!