An interview with David Willetts

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According to the Minister of State for Universities and Science, the new Government will focus on improving the quality of the student experience.

Speaking to SCAN during a visit to Lancaster to support new Conservative MP Eric Ollerenshaw, David Willetts said: “One of the things that I’ve stressed all the way along to university vice-chancellors and to students is the importance of the student experience.

“For many students the frustration at the moment is they don’t always feel that they get the attention from academics that they are entitled to expect. When I talk to students their concerns are about things like how long it takes to get their academic work returned after it’s been reviewed, how crowded seminars are [and] access to books and study materials.”

He feels that in order to improve this experience, a shift of focus from research to teaching is needed.

“What we’ve got at the moment is a university financing system that focuses very much on rewarding research but doesn’t have any comparable incentives for teaching,” he said. “I think we need to try and get the focus back on that crucial challenge of transmitting from one generation to the next a body of knowledge. […] I think that’s what students are hungry for, and that’s what we’re offering.”

Previously the Shadow Minister for Universities and Skills, Willetts was appointed to the coalition Cabinet to work under Liberal Democrat Secretary of State Vince Cable.

The Liberal Democrats have already come under fire from students and the NUS for seemingly backtracking on their promise to phase out tuition fees over six years. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have committed themselves to the outcome of the Browne review into university fees and funding, expected in autumn, though initial comments suggest that there is likely to be an increase in fees.

When asked what he would like to see come out of the review, Willetts returned to the subject of university teaching.

“I think it would be great if [Lord Browne] came up with proposals that strengthened the incentives for strong teaching. I think it would be great if universities themselves came up with their ideas for how they could improve the student experience.”

However, he was reticent on the subject of a potential raise in tuition fees, saying the review should be thought of as a funding review rather than a fees review, and reiterating that the student experience is most important.

“Whatever funding proposals emerge from Lord Browne, the crucial test is ‘Is this extra money that’s going to improve the quality of the student experience?’” he said.

Willetts outlined the Conservatives’ plans to change the university funding system by introducing early repayment bonuses for graduates who pay off their student loans early. This money would be used to fund extra university places.

“This summer we’re going to have tens of thousands of young people who on Labour’s plans are not going to get a place – in fact on Labour’s plans [there are] going to be six thousand fewer places. What we’re saying instead is ‘Look, we need to bring extra money into the system so that these young people are not frustrated.’

“That extra money that comes in by people repaying their loans early we’re going to use to pay for extra student places this year. We’ve got the most practical solution to the most immediate issue facing young people who want to get to university.”

Despite this, an extra 10,000 university places included in the Conservative manifesto and the first coalition agreement have disappeared following the announcement last week of a £6.2m budget cut in government spending.

In terms of jobs for graduates, Willetts wants to tackle unemployment by improving careers advice and increasing the number of internships.

“I think it’s very important to have work experience built into a course if at all possible,” he said. “I’m very interested as well in how we can improve careers advice and guidance so that people know the routes through from college [or] university into a job [and] the type of qualifications they should get. So if you combine a commitment to more internships and work experience plus better information and careers advice and guidance, I think there’s a lot we can do for students.”

Willetts commended the work that already happens in these areas at Lancaster.

“I think the University of Lancaster is particularly strong at some of these initiatives,” he said. “One of the reasons I’m so pleased to be here is I want to learn at first hand what already happens.”

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