The universities minister has intensified her attack on the higher education sector in England, warning that “true social mobility” is not about increasing the number of disadvantaged students going to university but about their outcomes.
Michelle Donelan told MPs on the education select committee “it doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university”, and said higher education “is not necessarily the best route to get to where you want to go in life”.
She did however highlight some of the government’s future expectations for the sector, calling on universities to offer more degree apprenticeships and invest more in part-time education to help boost skills for the post-Covid economy.
Her comments are likely to send a chill through the sector which has prioritised improving access for disadvantaged groups, spending millions of pounds on widening participation schemes to improve social mobility and life chances.
As a result there are now record numbers of disadvantaged students going to university, the committee heard. Donelan pointed out however that while 59.1% of black young people under 19 now progress to higher education, there is still a 20% attainment gap between black and white students “which is simply not good enough”.
In a speech earlier this month, the minister said young people had been “taken advantage of” and misled by the expansion of university courses with no real demand from the labour market.
Donelan told MPs on Wednesday that social mobility was more than just target-driven box-ticking. “I really think we need to move away from this focus on how many students go to university. It’s such a blunt instrument,” she said. “It is not actually very accurate in terms of social mobility.
“If a student goes to university and then drops out after year 1 and has a year’s debt, what does that deliver for their social mobility? Nothing. In fact it sets them back in life. It’s about them completing high quality academically rigorous courses that then lead to graduate jobs, and that’s the important measure we should be looking at.”
Her comments follow a speech by education secretary Gavin Williamson earlier this month in which he set out plans to promote further education and ditch a long-held target to get 50% of young people in England to go to university.
Building on his theme, the universities minister told MPs: “We don’t necessarily want everybody to go to university … Whether you are advantaged or disadvantaged, higher education is not necessarily the best route to get where you want in life.”
Responding to Labour MP Ian Mearns, who said it was unlikely someone would become permanent secretary at the Department for Education without a degree, Donelan said she knew lots of people who had been successful in life without a degree, and they should be mentioned to illustrate there are other routes to success.
Donelan, a graduate of York University, was also asked about the financial crisis facing a number of universities, which are likely to lose considerable income if fewer international students choose to come to study in the UK following the Covid-19 pandemic.
A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies said as many as 13 British universities could face financial disaster from the after-effects of the coronavirus. Rather than a bailout, the minister said the government would announce details of a “restructuring regime” as “a last resort”, but warned there would be conditions attached to any additional funding.
The minister also addressed high salaries among vice-chancellors and senior university staff, praising those who volunteered for pay cuts of 10-30% during the Covid crisis and said she would like to see that continue.