Go back

Control pace of education reforms, Cable urged

UK vice-chancellors are concerned that “off-quota” university places for students achieving AAB grades at A-level could have consequences for social mobility, student choice and the sustainability of certain STEM courses, Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK, has warned.

Thomas made his first speech as UUK president at the organisation’s annual conference at Royal Holloway, University of London, on 8 September.

Addressing the business secretary, Vince Cable, who also spoke at the meeting, Thomas warned of the inevitability of “unintended consequences” from the higher-education reforms.

He said the government should be careful not to move too quickly in implementing further changes.

“We urge you not to further accelerate the pace of change quickly and that we and you allow thoughtful analysis and monitoring of the outcomes of the current changes before moving on to more,” he told Cable.

In his own speech and ensuing question-and-answer session, however, Cable said that the introduction of additional places for the highest achieving students would not threaten social mobility.

Simply freeing up places for students with AAB grades might have had such an effect, he said, but stressed that the government’s commitment to widening access through the Office for Fair Access would remove such risks.

“Now, I recognise people are worried that there may be unintended consequences, for certain subjects or institutions,” he said. “There have been suggestions that this will reintroduce some sort of two-tier higher education system. I don’t think this will happen, and it certainly isn’t our intention.”

Addressing the lack of strategy on research in the white paper on higher education, Cable said that the government’s separate innovation and research strategy would “give an end-product by the end of the year”.

Thomas praised the government for having “significantly supported” universities in comparison with other public bodies by introducing a mechanism for sustained or increased capital spending by 2015.

He also said the higher-education sector had become more diverse in the past 20 years.

Since 1991, he said, there had been a raise in student numbers, several new courses that “meet … the needs of employers” and there was now a “flourishing engagement” with business. The concept of enterprise, he added, could have been described as “nascent” in 1991.

Thomas used a comparison between the Research Assessment Exercise in 1992 and 2008 to illustrate his point that the number of universities submitting in STEM subjects like chemistry, physics, maths and engineering had fallen. Submissions in nursing and other health-related subjects, on the other hand, had increased.

“The picture is quite clear—there has been a huge concentration and selectivity in the expensive subjects,” he said. “Only some universities can afford the infrastructure investment to keep such research activities going. Other universities have sought to sustain their research excellence in those subjects that they can support financially.

“In other words we have a very successful diversity in research excellence, as RAE 2008 showed, just as we in do in education,” he added.

“Respecting that diversity is crucial to our success as a sector. It was Sir Howard Newby who said that a very singular skill of the British was to turn diversity into a hierarchy—I would like universities and their partners to be the first to disprove that insightful supposition.”