Students are the priority, say university ministers

Lammy, Willetts and Williams face off at THE debate. Melanie Newman reports

Higher education spokesmen for the three main political parties have vowed to put students at the heart of their strategies should they win the general election.

Speaking at a Times Higher Education debate at the Royal Geographical Society last night, David Lammy, Higher Education Minister, David Willetts, Conservative Shadow Universities Secretary, and Stephen Williams, their Liberal Democrat counterpart, emphasised the need to reward quality teaching and improve the student experience.

Asked what single thing he would do for the sector if his party won the election with a significant majority, Mr Lammy said he would do more to ensure that “the emphasis on teaching… is as strong as it needs to be in relation to research”.

He added: “We mustn’t get to a place where teaching feels second tier.”

Mr Lammy also said there was “more we can do” in the use of technology in pedagogy.

Responding to a question from a graduate of King’s College London about recent cuts in higher education funding, the minister said the budget reductions had been structured to protect teaching as far as possible.

“The cut to teaching is 1.6 per cent,” he added.

Mr Willetts said that if the Tories triumphed, he would push for the publication of all data potentially of interest to students, such as that collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency and the UK Labour Force Survey.

He was speaking after the launch of a website he has backed,, which provides information on the best courses to take in order to pursue specific careers and the average salaries of graduates from competing universities and courses.

At present, Mr Willetts said, “a large amount of data is not made available, or if it is, then only on stringent conditions”.

He argued that in the National Health Service, publication of mortality rates, for example, had opened up a debate on medical standards.

“Universities are behind the times. Students are entitled to be well-informed consumers… the Government should liberate this information,” he said.

Mr Willetts added that the Conservative Party was the only one to have formed a practical policy to cope with demand for university places in summer 2010, which is likely to far outstrip the limited supply.

Dealing with this demand was the “biggest single challenge” for politicians in the higher education sphere, he said.

The Tory plan is to offer discounts to get graduates to repay their loans early and to use the income generated to fund an extra 10,000 places.

Mr Williams said that if the Lib Dems were in power, at the end of a five-year term he would like to see more people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering university.

He called for universities to introduce incentives for teaching through promotions.

Over 20 years of visits to the University of Bristol, where he was an undergraduate, Mr Williams said that students had consistently complained that they were not getting enough contact time with their tutors.

“I am not convinced that students have been direct beneficiaries of tuition-fee income,” he added.

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