Gavin Williamson criticised for ‘galling’ comment on ‘dead-end’ university courses

Exclusive: NUS vice president for higher education says remarks show education secretary is ‘out of touch’

The National Union of Students (NUS) has criticised Gavin Williamson for “galling” comments after he spoke of “dead-end” university courses.

The education secretary has faced backlash over remarks on courses which “leave young people with nothing but debt”.

It comes just days after the government launched a consultation that put forward plans to halve a subsidy given to universities for some arts subjects, such as performing arts and archaeology

In an article published by Conservative Home, Mr Williamson said proposed legislation “will strengthen the ability of the Office for Students (OfS) to crack down on low quality courses, delivering on our manifesto commitment”.

He said: “The record number of people taking up science and engineering demonstrates that many are already starting to pivot away from dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt.”

Mr Williamson added: “Our reforms will open the way for them to embrace the opportunities offered by degree apprenticeships, higher technical qualifications, modular learning and our flagship Institutes of Technology.”

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio from the NUS told The Independent: “The education secretary’s galling comment comes just a week after a 50 per cent funding cut to arts subjects and constitutes an assault on a multitude of hugely valuable disciplines that enrich our society.”

The OfS said the proposed cuts related to a subsidy it provides – which is “much smaller” than tuition fees – to help universities deliver subjects that are expensive to teach.

Ms Gyebi-Ababio, the NUS vice president for higher education, told The Independent Mr Williamson’s comments come after “a year where we have all relied heavily on creative talent, literature and entertainment to ensure our own wellbeing”.

She added: “His limited concept of the purpose of education has once again proven himself to be once completely out of touch with the country.”

Universities UK told The Independent: "It is essential that the public has full confidence in the value and quality of a university degree, and the overwhelming majority of courses are high quality and offer good value for students.”

The body – which represents 140 institutions in the UK – said in a statement: “Increasing funding for high-cost courses such as medicine is vital but the proposed changes to funding for arts subjects is gravely concerning.

“Cuts to subjects including drama, music, performing and creative arts could mean a reduction in the number of courses offered.”

An OfS consultation with the education secretary earlier this month proposed a cut to a grant for courses in performing and creative arts, media studies and archaeology.

Under proposed changes, the OFS said a subsidy provided to universities for help with high-cost subjects would be halved to £121.50 per student per year for some subjects.

England’s higher education regulator said the cuts worked out at “a reduction of around 1 per cent of the combined tuition fee and OfS funding”.

However, the proposals sparked alarm among musicians, who warned the cut to this channel of funding would be “catastrophic” for most higher education music teaching.

The consultation on OfS funding changes proposed an increase in subsidies for high-cost subjects “identified as supporting the NHS and wider healthcare policy, high-cost science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and/or specific labour market needs”.

The OfS said its funding budget “will have to stretch further in the coming years with significant growth forecast in student numbers – particularly in courses that are more expensive to teach.

“The government has also highlighted professional shortages in scientists, engineers, medical and dental practitioners, nurses and midwives, and the importance of supporting STEM and healthcare subjects in guidance to the OfS.”

It added: “In this context we need to make difficult decisions about how to prioritise our increasingly constrained funding budget.”

A Department for Education spokesperson told The Independent earlier this month reforms “are designed to target taxpayers’ money towards the subjects which support the skills this country needs to build back better”.

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