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King’s speech: Criticism of universities ‘beyond belief’

Former adviser hits out as monarch’s address in parliament takes aim at “poor quality” courses

It is “beyond belief” that the King’s speech at the state opening of Parliament included a criticism of the quality of some courses at UK universities, a former adviser to three universities ministers has said.

Delivering his first such address, which sets out the government’s legislative plans for the coming parliamentary session, King Charles said ministers would look to reduce the number of students on courses deemed to be substandard.

Diana Beech, chief executive of the London Higher group of institutions and a former adviser to three Conservative ministers, criticised the government for using the occasion to attack universities.

“On an occasion when the UK pulls out all the stops to impress the world with tradition and pageantry, it is beyond belief that the UK government would even contemplate asking His Majesty the King to speak negatively of the national asset that is our world-leading higher education and research sector,” she said.

The speech promised that the government would bring in policies to “reduce the number of young people studying poor-quality university degrees and increase the number undertaking high-quality apprenticeships”. The statement continues previous attacks from ministers on “low-quality courses”, although no specific examples or universities have ever been named.

Beech said: “In its mission to appeal to domestic voters, the government appears to have forgotten that the world is watching, and the King’s reference to supposed ‘poor-quality university degrees’ will not do global Britain any favours when the brightest and best from across the world choose to take their talents elsewhere.”

She added that the “ominous wording” around the plan to reduce the number of young people studying some degrees “also reveals we are still live to the risk of the reimposition of some form of student-number controls, which could block opportunity [for] those who can benefit from it the most”.

A-level reform

Charles said that the proposals formed part of the government’s plan to “strengthen education for the long term”.

The plan also includes steps to replace A-levels and T-levels with a new ‘Advanced British Standard’, designed to bring technical and academic routes into a single qualification.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said bringing technical and academic qualifications together was “worthwhile”, but added that the Advanced British Standard “is not going to exist for 10 years [from now], if at all”.

“It is not the right priority at a time when the education profession is under so much pressure,” he said. 

“There remains no urgency to solve teacher shortages and funding shortfalls that are already impacting schools and colleges, and call into question the viability of extending teaching in the way the Advanced British Standard would require.”