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UUK conference: Williamson criticises ‘low-quality’ courses

Image: Martin McQuillan for HE

Education secretary tempers praise for universities with warning on graduate outcomes

Gavin Williamson has criticised “pockets of low quality” in UK higher education provision, citing The Guardian’s university league tables as evidence.

Addressing the Universities UK annual conference, which is taking place online, the education secretary said that universities and other higher education providers played “a key role” in national and regional economies by “providing students with the skills they need to go into graduate jobs, but also by being at the forefront of applied industrial research and by working closely with hundreds of businesses”.

However, he added that “there are still pockets of low quality”. “One only has to look at the Guardian subject league tables to see there are too many courses where well under 50 per cent of students proceed to graduate employment,” he said.

“But more fundamentally, in order to create a fairer, more prosperous and more productive country, we need to reverse the generational decline in higher technical education.”

The Department for Education is finalising its further education white paper, which Williamson said in July would “set out our plans to build a world-class, German-style further education system in Britain, and level up skills and opportunities”.

“This will not be about incremental change but a comprehensive plan to change the fundamentals of England’s further education landscape, inspired by the best models from around the world,” he said at the time. The paper is expected this autumn.

Elsewhere in his address, Williamson praised universities for their “truly remarkable” efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Let’s not forget scientists, researchers and technicians in universities across the UK who are supporting our Vaccine Taskforce by working tirelessly to research a vaccine for coronavirus,” he said.

“Universities have also offered vital services such as lab space and accommodation, applying research expertise to develop medicine and equipment needed to combat the virus.”

Also addressing the UUK conference was universities minister Michelle Donelan, who also thanked universities for their response to the pandemic. “I have recognised the speed and agility shown by universities, how you have moved provision online, in some cases in just 24 hours, to make sure all your students were able to continue their studies,” Donelan said.

“We know that universities have a reputation for innovation—after all, it is what you do—but to see it transforming the learning experience for thousands of young people—that has been a revelation.”

Donelan also praised universities for “bending over backwards to unlock the dreams and opportunities of this year’s cohort” after institutions accepted a “record percentage of 18-year-olds into university, and a record level of disadvantaged students this year”.

Elsewhere, the universities minister announced that the government was to immediately remove what she termed “unnecessary bureaucracy” from a range of university activities.