The higher education minister David Willetts, also known as Two Brains, is not only brainy but also very well informed, as he showed in his speech last week at Oxford Brookes University. It was, first and foremost, a joy to read. It sounded like a speech that had been written by the minister himself rather than a civil servant because it was not bland and boring but, rather, interesting and full of sharp references to last year's select committee report on higher education, the Dearing report and Ed Balls. He points out that the former schools secretary doesn't seem to understand that tuition fees in England are not paid upfront but are effectively a capped graduate tax.
Willetts rehearses some of his favourite themes – the quality of teaching and the inflexibility of the funding structure put in place by Tony Blair. Raising fees will have unintended consequences, he explains, increasing public spending because the Government would have to lend young people the money to pay for them. The speech was therefore candid and informative, and he made some telling points about his Labour predecessors – that they did not demand enough of the universities in return for students having to pay top-up fees.
Interestingly, Willetts appears as committed to widening access as Labour. This represents a great change in Conservative thinking since the party was last in government. Willetts has made clear that he wants to see widening participation take place in further education colleges rather than universities. His idea is to reach people who don't have a higher education institution in their home town. Instead they can take a degree validated by a university by attending their local further education college. This is not only a cheaper way to organise higher education it is also effective and, most important, it is tried and tested.
Many universities work with their local further education colleges to do exactly that. Lancaster University operates with the college of further education in Blackburn, for example, to provide degree courses for the residents of the town in Lancashire. This brings higher education to people who would not otherwise get it.
Willetts is making clear that he does not want to see more universities being set up but at the same time he is nailing his colours to the widening participation mast. The important thing is to make sure that people acquiring their higher education in further education colleges are receiving the high quality experience that they would get in a fully-fledged university.