Universities are facing winds of change, minister warns

Embattled universities are not simply dealing with an "annus horribilis", they are facing "winds of change", Sam Gyimah has said.

In a speech, the new Universities Minister warned that the days when students "venerated institutions" and were thankful to win places are gone, and they are now in "the age of the student".

In recent months, universities have come under the spotlight for issues such as senior leaders' pay, free speech, questions over value for money, and the achievement of disadvantaged students, he said.

Mr Gyimah told a conference in central London: "Some in the sector see this as a sort of annus horribilis for higher education, a storm to be weathered in the hope of calmer times ahead.

"I think this is a mistaken reading.

"To paraphrase one Conservative prime minister, we are once again experiencing the 'winds of change' in the university sector.

"Gone are the days when students venerated institutions and were thankful to be admitted. We are in a new age - the age of the student."

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The minister's comments were made at a conference marking the launch of the new higher education regulator, the Office for Students, on the day its remit was confirmed.

In his speech, My Gyimah said: "Not a single week goes by without a university story being splashed on the front pages.

"Be it industrial action, investigations into top pay, concerns over free speech or controversies about 'decolonising the curricula'.

"Questions on value for money, the size of the graduate premium, the relatively poor attainment of disadvantaged students at universities, the mental health and wellbeing of our students and the very broader purpose of universities are not just issues for anxious parents and grandparents worried about student fees.

"They are being debated by serious and credible commentators in policy circles and the media."

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Mr Gyimah also suggested universities should not be giving out unconditional offers - offering students places regardless of the grades they achieve.

Official figures show the number of such offers made by institutions rose 40% in a year, with 51,615 handed out last year, compared to 36,825 in 2016 and 2,985 in 2013.

Asked about this issue, the minister said: "My reaction to that is for universities to really work they've got to be selecting people who can succeed in a university environment and do well in a university environment so unconditional offers should not be used as a way of sidestepping that key criteria that should be there for people to get into a university environment.

"Ultimately, universities are about excellence and you don't want to in any way undermine that about universities.

"Secondly, as a country we've got to get away from the idea that if you prove you are clever that you've got to go to university."

Someone can be successful without going to university, and the recently announced higher education review will look at alternative options, Mr Gyimah said, to "create a system that people value, has status".

  • 2017 - 51,615

  • 2016 - 36,825

  • 2013 - 2,985

Mr Gyimah was also asked for his thoughts on campaigns from some quarters, such as some student groups, to decolonise university curriculums - ensuring they do not focus only on a narrow range of opinions, such as white western males, but a broader range of views and authors.

He said: "There is an element to which I see some of these things and I think this is what happens in universities - if you want free speech, if you want free exchange of ideas, expect there to be ideas that you don't really understand at all.

"But what we should be cautious of - and this is caution - is phasing out parts of the curriculum that just happen to be unpopular or unfashionable. I genuinely believe that part of the university experience is actually facing up to the unpopular, facing up to the unfashionable, engaging with it, challenging it, that is how you widen your horizons."