Blair’s proposal for seven in 10 to go to university ‘beyond misguided’

Michelle Donelan said investigations into universities who have not returned to face-to-face learning will start in the summer.

22 April 2022

The proposal for seven in 10 teenagers to go on to higher education is “condescending”, the higher and further education minister has said.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan told the PA news agency that the proposal put forward by the Tony Blair Institute for 70% of school leavers to go onto higher education was “beyond misguided”.

A report from the institute, published on Thursday, said that if 70% of young people completed higher education it would “significantly” raise national productivity levels.

The report said that the Government seemed “increasingly sceptical” about the value of universities, with ministers considering measures such as controls on student numbers and minimum entry requirements for university.

But Ms Donelan said: “We are not sceptical of the value of university – we’re not trying to discourage individuals from going. Anybody that has the ability and reaches that attainment and also the desire to go to university should be able to do so, absolutely, just like I did, in fact.”

“But at the same time we’re saying university is not the only route and it’s not always the right route, depending on where you want to get and the type of job that you want to go into.”

She said that the Government was continuing to invest in further education colleges and apprenticeships, while the Government’s announcement of a lifelong loans entitlement in February would give adults access to loan funding equivalent to four years of study from 2025.

“It is condescending from a former prime minister to say that he almost knows what’s best for every individual, and that seven out of ten the best route for them would be university,” she said.

“That’s not true. The best route for those individuals would be something that works for them, whether that’s going to college, going to university or going to an apprenticeship.”

Ms Donelan said that investigations into a “stubborn minority” of universities that were failing to deliver face-to-face teaching would be underway in the summer.

MP portraits
Universities minister Michelle Donelan (Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament/PA)

The investigations, carried out by the Office for Students, would be “boots on the ground, proper investigations into what’s happening in these universities”, she said, adding that the universities could face fines of up to half a million pounds or 2% of their budget, depending on which amount was highest, or lose their access to student finance if they did not return to pre-pandemic teaching methods.

She said that “digital enhancing” of courses had a place, for example uploading lectures online so students could listen back to them.

“Where it’s not okay is if digital learning is used as a cost-saving exercise or because of Covid when actually we know as a Government, we’ve removed all the restrictions,” she said.

“I think we have to be really clear here that it is absolutely not fair if students are put on a second track to the rest of the population. Why should that be the case? It shouldn’t be the case in any university, even if one faculty in one university is doing that, that’s not right.”

“There’s no reason now to be introducing these restrictions – you’ve got to remember, students and lecturers themselves are going to the pub, they’re going out for meals, they’re probably going to birthday parties, they’re going to the shops, they’re going to weddings – all of these things are allowed so it doesn’t make any sense to therefore say that you can’t have a lecture taking place, given where we are,” she added.

In figures published by the Office for National Statistics in March, 27% of students in England had received zero hours of in-person teaching in the previous seven days, a similar rate to late November 2021, when 24% had had no in-person teaching.

Ms Donelan said it was “unbelievable” that there were concerns about antisemitism within the ranks of the National Union of Students in “today’s age”.

The NUS has called for an independent investigation into alleged antisemitism, following concerns over remarks made on social media by the president-elect, as well as the invitation of controversial musician Lowkey to an NUS event.

“I am deeply concerned about the allegations that have been made around the NUS and about the comments made by some of their executive,” Ms Donelan said.

“This is deeply distressing for Jewish students – we want to be a place that welcomes people of all races and religion on our campuses. There is absolutely no place for antisemitism in our society, let alone in our universities and it is vital that we stamp this out.”

Ms Donelan said she was “looking at a package of measures” that could be used to resolve the issue, and has previously said she would not engage with the NUS unless it took immediate steps to regain the confidence of Jewish students.

She said that an update would be announced shortly and that she was taking the matter  “extremely seriously”.

“I would have expected better from the NUS and it is unbelievable that we are even having to discuss this in today’s age in relation to such a large body that works day in day out with students,” she said.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President of NUS, said: “We want absolutely everyone who has the dream of going into higher education to be able to do so.”

She added that the Government’s plans to introduce minimum entry requirements and the change to student loan payments were an “attack on opportunity”.

The NUS UK Board said: “There can be no place for antisemitism within the student movement.”

“We will take any and all actions that are needed to remedy any wrongdoing and rebuild trust with Jewish students as well as our Members, partners and stakeholders.”

Ian Mulheirn, the Tony Blair Institute’s UK Policy Director, said: “Post-Brexit, Britain must continue to invest in its people to prosper so now is the time to radically raise our ambitions for higher education rather than looking to curb numbers.”

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