Has anybody seen Greg Clark? While students protest and bloggers rage, the Minister for Universities has stayed schtum. He’s doing his bit on Twitter – although perhaps not very well, given he’s short of a blue tick and hasn’t mentioned anything of interest, unless you’re into staged PR shots.
Instead, the influence of his predecessor David Willetts remains pervasive: rumours of Oxbridge increasing fees to £16,000 and universities underwriting their own loans hung closely to the Willetts way of thinking. During the recent free education protest, students spoke of “value for money” – something Willets promoted, which later came back to bite him.
These instances won’t be the last we hear of him either, because David Willetts elementally refocused the perception of what a university should achieve and why. Greg Clark hasn’t inherited individual problems alone, he’s inherited an approach and an attitude. If he wants to improve higher education, it is an approach he will reject.
As he stepped down, Willetts predicted that Clarke would face problems over the £9,000 fees – this, of course, came true. But did anyone hear from him? What was the official line? Clark should have stepped up to reassure students and engage with them properly, sincerely, rationally. Turning his back and ignoring the problem can hardly of quelled anybody’s doubts.
Clark also needs to stand toe-to-toe with Labour, who’ve suggested they would slash fees to £6,000. While this sounds reasonable, under the current repayment scheme this policy would only make life easier for high earners, despite it masquerading as help for the hardest-up. It’s like finding out Robin Hood broke into the homes of the rich to empty their bins for them. So why hasn’t he said anything?
His real challenge will be to recalibrate the current take on what universities are and what they should achieve. Willetts perpetuated the idea of universities as service providers and students as consumers, the two bonded by transaction alone. Every Willets utterance implied he wondered just what universities could do for the economy (create £73 billion in a year, as it turns out). Clark must look at it the other way around.
Willetts spoke of improving graduate employment prospects as though training school leavers for jobs were the sole reason universities exist. He extolled the fiscal benefits of university. Young people haven’t been sold the idea of education, they’ve been bribed with the promise of higher wages. As this patently isn’t true for many, it is frustrating for all and gnaws away at any last scrap of trust one might have in the Government. Clark needs to start a public dialogue about what education can realistically achieve. After all, universities are educators, not businesses.
He needs to make it clear he recognises the distinction. When university is spoken of in terms of value, a jeering undertow creeps in to the conversation: "go on," it sneers, "tell us just how much money your precious degree can make you." The vulgar innuendo is that if a university education doesn’t result in wealth, it has no value - whereas once learning was an end unto itself, it has regrettably mutated into a means to an end. And if some turn around and say this means university is useless for them, at least their eyes were open making the choice and at least they weren’t blindsided by misleading figures.
While average poet is unlikely to earn the same amount as an engineer, who’s saying they have to? And if it’s you - what concern is it of yours?
Greg Clark must give his take on it. It’s about time our universities were championed again, and not just for their financial benefits – students and universities alike need a vocal minister to enact change and speak clearly when problems arise. If the minister disagrees, he should say so too - students and universities need to know he’s listening. After all, they deserve an answer when they ask their questions.
David Ellis helped found StudentMoneySaver.co.ukReuse content