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Former Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts, published a pamphlet, called Boosting higher education while cutting public spending on 30 September. 

The University of Portsmouth’s Head of Policy, Dean Machin (DM), worked with David on the pamphlet. Here he asks the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Graham Galbraith, (GG) some questions about the importance of the pamphlet.

DM: Is this pamphlet important?

GG: It is a very important contribution to the debate. It addresses directly some key issues facing universities, and in particular universities like ours. It is a well argued piece of writing, as you would expect from someone who cares for and understands the university sector so well.

David is absolutely correct to attack the myth that universities don’t do vocational education. It is important that someone, whom the Government respects, points out the funding squeeze on universities which has now reached critical levels.

And it is vital that there is a proper debate about the ill conceived plan of phasing out BTECs for T levels and what that will mean for 16-18 year olds.

DM: What do you think about the proposal to make graduates pay more?

GG: It is not up to a Vice-Chancellor to say how society should fund university education; that’s a collective democratic decision. In an ideal world I personally would want it to be free as it is in Scotland, but the reality is that such an approach inevitably leads to an underfunded sector and restrictions on the number of students who can benefit from higher education.

I think David may well be correct that, in the current climate, any alternative to student loan funding of undergraduate education will most likely mean less money is invested in undergraduate education and funding to universities will fall. It is also likely that in this economic climate the Government will probably strive to make graduates repay more. If students are to pay more for their education, we have to be relentlessly focused on ensuring studying at Portsmouth is a good investment for them.

The real concern is that students pay more in their lifetime by starting to pay at a lower repayment threshold, but at the same time the government reduces the fee cap to, for example, £7,500 to make it look like they are reducing the costs. Such a fee cap reduction under the current system will actually benefit only the better off graduates. This will be a real challenge for us as we will be expected to deliver the same high quality student experience but with significantly less money available per student to fund it.

Whatever happens, we have to remember that we cannot change the funding system, but it is in our power to improve our students’ experience, and their outcomes. 

DM: How important is this month’s Government Spending Review?

GG: This is the most significant spending review for 10 years and possibly longer for universities. In the decade since 2012 the fee cap has been increased by inflation once. Yet pay, pensions and other costs increase every year with general inflation expected to increase.

Universities are being squeezed between static income and increasing costs - and that is before a possible fee cut to £7,500pa. Even if fees are left where they are now, continual improvement and economies of scale will be vital for universities like ours to remain financially stable. 

DM: There is a lot in the pamphlet on the Skills Bill that is currently going through parliament. How important is that Bill to the University?

GG: Potentially very important. The Bill will change the rules on how qualifications for 16 -18 year olds (level 3 qualifications) are approved and funded. Only a small number of specialist BTECs will survive and we will end up with a binary system of T levels and A levels. Young people will have to choose one route or the other. I don’t think this is in young people’s or the country’s long-term interests.

The potential disappearance of BTECs is also a significant worry for students. BTECs are disproportionately taken by economically disadvantaged young people, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students and students with some form of disability. How well they will be served by a binary T and A level system is not, in my view, something the Government has properly considered. 

DM: What is the most important message you want to get to the Government?

If you want to level up you need a properly-funded university sector and you need universities in all parts of the country. Universities want to play their part but the Government doesn’t seem keen that we are involved.

It would be useful - for everyone - if the Government was clear on where we fit with their positive agenda and stopped picking energy-sapping and pointless ‘culture war’ fights. Apart from a few people who enjoy controversy for its own sake, no-one is interested. What really matters is the educational and skills development opportunities universities provide for students of all ages and our role in supplying the highly capable people the economy needs to support our recovery from COVID and Brexit.

We are recognised internationally as a world class sector and acknowledged as one of the biggest export earners of any sector in the UK. We must surely be treasured and supported by our government, not undermined and dismantled.