David Willetts speech at Oxford Brookes

David Willetts’ speech yesterday was a mixed bag.

The trailing of its content as being about the Browne fees review was worthy of New Labour at its most manipulative. But we can hardly blame the Minister for that.

The best bits were about recognising and rewarding teaching: I liked the statement that the current funding model has no room to reward excellent teaching, and the one stressing that more focus on teaching in higher education would lead to a better student experience. May we now expect some performance funding associated with teaching?

I was quite keen too on the idea of new higher education institutions* competing with the old ones – though the Minister gave us no detail about what this might mean. Or indeed, if you were being ungenerous, about what any of his ideas might mean.

A less good bit was the tired complaint about students not getting enough feedback (no student in the world EVER thinks they get enough feedback on their assessed work, David). The veiled threat of using this ‘fact’ as a stick to beat universities up with was vapid stuff. Even poorer was his argument for the administrative nightmare of information statements about student employability prospects, although I seem to remember this pre-dates the Coalition anyway.

If we hoped that unnecessary regulation and bureaucracy died with the last government, here is proof that we were over-optimistic.

The genuinely weird bits of the speech included the anachronistic concept of externally examined degrees (I speak as a graduate with one, but that was 40 years ago) and the recycling of higher education delivered in FE colleges (we already have that, in case you haven’t noticed). These are ideas run up a flagpole in the hope that someone salutes them.

The Minister might remember that he isn’t fighting an election any more. He’s in government now. The time for thinking aloud (radically or otherwise), floating ideas, and taking swipes at previous administrations has passed into history. Let’s see some solid proposals for action instead.

Reactions to the speech have so far been as diverse as the speech itself. My favourite for the wooden spoon is the Guardian’s editorial. It seems to believe that deferred loans for tuition fees discourage poor students. They don’t. And that a graduate tax would be fair. It wouldn’t be. It’s like saying that people who get on in their careers should pay more for a bar of chocolate and continue to pay more for it for the rest of their working lives.

* Presumably private providers — this might do a teeny amount towards increasing GDP, so better than nothing.

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