Mandelson delivers warning on university funding

Author: By Alison Kershaw, Press Association

But if universities want to charge students more they will be expected to
ensure the poorest applicants are not priced out of higher education, he
said.

It is likely to be taken as the strongest indication yet that the Government
is looking at raising the cap on tuition fees.

In a speech to university vice-chancellors at Birkbeck University in central
London today, Lord Mandelson said: “I do not believe that we can separate
the issues of fees, access and student support. Any institution that wants
to use greater cost to the student to fund excellence must face an equal
expectation to ensure that its services remain accessible to more than just
those with the ability to pay.”

The Business Secretary said it was time for the debate on higher education
funding to reach some “hard and fast” conclusions.

He said: “Whatever funding mix for higher education we develop, there must
always be a link between what an institution charges and its performance in
widening access and supporting those without the ability to pay.”

He added: “We have to face up to the challenge of paying for excellence.”

Lord Mandelson said he did not want to pre-empt the outcome of a tuition fee
review which is due to begin later this year.

The review is expected to take around a year, Lord Mandelson said.

This means it will not finish before the next general election.

In a wide ranging speech, Lord Mandelson set out the major issues facing the
sector, including the economy, social mobility and funding.

On the issue of funding he said: “Bluntly put, excellence is not cheap.”

The Government has to ensure UK universities remain world class while
addressing the pressure on public resources, he said.

But the University and College Union (UCU) said it was concerned Lord
Mandelson appeared to give a green light to higher fees.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “Education is vital to our future
prosperity, not something to be rationed and higher fees would be about as
popular as the poll tax with hard working families.

“In a time of recession the Government should be considering how to make
access to education cheaper, not giving a green light to universities who
wish to charge higher fees.”

Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students (NUS) said: “Lord
Mandelson’s emphasis on social mobility and supporting poorer students ahead
of the review of tuition fees is encouraging, but those universities
pressing to charge higher tuition fees are the very same institutions who
have made insufficient progress in ensuring that their doors are open to
those from poorer backgrounds.

“There is no evidence to suggest that bursaries offered by elite institutions
have made a dent on widening access. Given that, last year, £19 million of
student fee income earmarked for bursaries went unspent, it is not clear
that universities can be trusted to ensure that poorer students are properly
supported and encouraged to apply.”

Shadow universities secretary David Willetts said: “The Government needs to
get on with the tuition fees review.

“Lord Mandelson touches on a number of important issues in his speech but
everyone in the university sector is waiting for the fees review and there
is no need to delay any longer.”

Lord Mandelson also told vice chancellors the UK is at risk of failing to
exploit the role of universities as a way of improving social mobility.

“I think that the historic anti-elitism of some parts of the left on education
policy has often been a dead end because it has confused excellence and
privilege.

He warned he was impatient about the progress made in getting more poor
students to university and said he would “turn up the spotlight” on
university admissions.

A university education is still the “gateway” to the professions, he said.

“I think we have to ask: why, for all the work in the sector and all the
seriousness with which it has tackled this question are we still making only
limited progress in widening access to higher education to young people from
poorer backgrounds – especially at our most selective universities?”

Professor Paul Wellings, chair-elect of the 1994 Group of universities and the
vice chancellor of Lancaster University, said: “1994 Group universities are
strongly committed to improving access and are using a significant amount of
income from fees to offer variable bursaries to assist fair access and
encourage students from lower socio-economic groups to attend world-class
research-intensive universities.

“Widening access and encouraging social mobility is at the heart of the
founding vision of many 1994 Group universities.”

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of leading universities,
said: “With regards to the admissions process, our universities already draw
on a range of factors and information in order to identify potential, which
may not be reflected in traditional qualifications. For example, some
universities will take into account any particular barriers the candidate
may have faced during their education such as spending time in care.”

Lord Mandelson also revealed there will be a review of post graduate
education, which will be carried out by Professor Adrian Smith, director
general of science and research at the Department for Business Innovation
and Skills.

A spokesman for university think tank million+ said: “Million+ welcomes Lord
Mandelson’s recognition that universities are an engine for social mobility
and a ‘social trust’ which contribute to the economy and to society in its
broadest sense.

“The holistic fees and funding review to which Lord Mandelson committed today
will also be welcomed by those who believe that students of all ages and
backgrounds should have access to support so they may take advantage of all
of the opportunities that universities provide.”

Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK which represents
vice-chancellors, said: “Lord Mandelson’s speech this morning was a
thought-provoking and encouraging insight into his view of the future
direction for higher education in England.

“Universities share his commitment to excellence and his acknowledgement that
this ‘does not come cheap” is particularly welcome in the current economic
climate, when difficult decisions will have to be made.”

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