When I took office in January, I said that we were now in the Age of the Student. Since then I’ve made it a priority to visit campuses and listen to students.
The coming year will be an eventful one. March 29 sees the Article 50 deadline, when the UK is set to leave the EU. A review of post-18 education and funding is under way. We are busy implementing the reforms set out in the Higher Education and Research Act. The Office for Students is getting to grips with its task.
But I also know that in times of change, it can be easy to be swept away by the rush of activity – and if not to forget, then to be distracted from – our core mission. Let me start by setting out what I hope I have made obvious in the past nine months: I love our universities.
That is not just because university was a defining moment in my life.
It is because I respect what universities represent at their best: places dedicated to the free and robust exchange of ideas. Places where curiosity and passion drives the search for knowledge. Places where you can break free of whatever handicaps the circumstances of birth and background bestow. Places to develop, that are at once safe and profoundly challenging.
My regard for Britain’s universities is more than just subjective. Given the state of debate on higher education in parts of the UK media, what I am about to say next may be controversial. But I will say it anyway: going to university is worth it.
A good degree is worth the investment, both the investment that students make through fees, and the investment that the Government makes through the T-grant and through the student loans system. Research still demonstrates that the graduate still earns a premium over their lifetime. What is more, university can be a ‘rite of passage’ – with an important opportunity to learn and grow as a person. Perhaps this is obvious.
But, as George Orwell argued, there are times when “the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men”.
While we’re at it, it is a good time to challenge other myths that surround our universities. Like the idea that universities provide only academic education, rather than a vocational one.
One only needs to look at the list of courses at some of our oldest universities to realise the idea that degrees are academic, not vocational, is mistaken.
Let’s also challenge the false dichotomy between Higher Education and Further Education that dominates the public debate on post-18 education. In fact, we have further and technical education being taught in the Higher Education sector, and higher education qualifications being awarded in the Further Education sector. This is not a zero-sum game. If the UK is to thrive we need more technical skills and more general analytic and creative skills; more vocational education and more academic education.
There is always the temptation for policy makers to over-emphasise the need for higher education to produce the skills the country needs.
But we also need to recognise, as most parents do of their children, that people are born with different talents, passions and aspirations – and so what we need is a system with quality at its heart so that whatever path a young person chooses, they can still flourish.
This is not to say that every degree at every university is as good as it can be.
I have spoken before about the importance of understanding which degrees do not offer value for money, and making sure students have the information to make the choices that are right for them. But it is right that we make a full-throated defence of the value of university education as a whole.
We should also be clear-eyed about the advantages of our funding system. The English system of funding undergraduate study through fees and loans has allowed us to remove student number caps, made access fairer, and kept our universities adequately funded to pursue their mission.
Young people from the most disadvantaged areas were 43 per cent more likely to go to university in 2016 than they were in 2009 and 52 per cent more likely to attend highly selective universities. Resource per student has increased by 25 per cent. This is not the case everywhere.
In Scotland this summer, it was reported that clearing places were available for English students and international students who pay higher fees but often not for Scottish ones. In Germany, resource per student fell by 11 per cent between 2010 and 2014. In the decades before fees were introduced, resource per student fell by 40 per cent.
Fees and loans have allowed us to correct what was a dire financial situation for our universities.
Our student finance system is not perfect. But it has some major advantages.
Sam Gyimah is the Universities Minister. This is an edited version of a speech he gave at Universities UK’s annual conference in Sheffield.