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'Work together for universities' future' urges Universities UK Chief Executive

Universities UK Media Release, September 22, 2003:

Following is the speech given by Diana Warwick, Chief Executive of Universities UK, at a Universities UK fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat party conference in Brighton on September 22:


"I'm delighted to see that so many of you have joined us tonight. I want to start by thanking Dr Wendy Piatt and Phil Willis for coming to talk to us this evening. I also want to welcome other Liberal Democrat colleagues, David Rendel, Lord Wallace, Baroness Sharp, who are also here.

I hope that they will agree with me when I say that I think that there is
more that unites us than divides us in the area of higher education policy.
My organisation, Universities UK, has been grateful for the contribution you
have made to the debate about higher education over the last few years. I
have enjoyed our exchanges, and will continue to enjoy them. But I know that
we differ in our views in a number of areas. You'll guess from the title we
have given this evening's session that we have chosen not to shrink from
addressing the major area of difference between us.

I'm not nave enough to think that through sheer rhetorical force I am going
to convince an audience of committed Liberal Democrats that students making
a bigger contribution to their tuition fees is a great idea. But I do want
to take this opportunity to tell you why Universities UK, representing the
Vice-Chancellors of English Universities, have chosen to support the
Government's proposals for differential fees.

We all know that this has become a huge political issue. I'm not complaining! I must say, it's nice to be top of the political agenda - even if it's sometimes something of a mixed blessing! For those who work in universities, it is a source of great relief that the funding needs of the sector have been recognised at last - and by parties right across the political spectrum.

Our universities have endured cuts in funding of 37% between 1989 and 2002.
During this same period, student numbers grew by 94%. It's clear that this is unsustainable, and while I would defend the quality of what our universities offer at the moment, there is a real risk that the UK could lose its record for excellence in higher education, both in the UK and abroad.

The figures I've just quoted are on the back of the flyer advertising this event. They're also on the backdrop behind me. They tell a powerful story. Let me give you another figure. "96% of student's think going to university is worthwhile". That's from the poll conducted by MORI for UNITE's Student Living Report, which also said that 87% of students think that the money they are spending on their higher education is a "good investment". I think they are right. The latest figures, published last week, show that UK graduates earn on average 61% more than non-graduates. That means we have the highest rate of return of any OECD country.

Everyone here will agree that all who have the potential to benefit from higher education ought to have the opportunity to do so. Not only are there financial rewards for those who can get through the door; we know that graduates benefit in all sorts of other ways - in terms of health, social mobility and the choices they can make.

But those of you who have seen the evidence of recent studies conducted by
the independent Higher Education Policy Institute, one of our partners this evening, will know that - through demographics alone - demand for higher education places is growing, and will continue to grow, so if we don't want to turn well qualified students away, we 'll have to expand to meet the demand.

I think it is pretty universally understood that if we don't expand, it's students from non-traditional and low income backgrounds, who are perhaps the first in their family to try for a university place, who are likely to miss out. We know that this is a wider problem that will exist until educational attainment and aspiration amongst school leavers bears no relation to social class. But if we go for growth we can, at least, ensure that the places are there for them.

So we need to expand higher education, and we need to pay for it somehow -
because one thing is certain in all of this - someone always pays. We think Lord Dearing was right when he said that the costs should be shared by all those who benefit from higher education. It's clear that students do. So does society. I haven't talked about the two other figures on this backdrop [indicate], but not only are our universities a major employer, they contribute an enormous amount to the national economy. In fact, I think it's true to say that for every 1 million of public money spent on higher education, 1.54 million is generated in the rest of the economy.

We have argued, as you have, that public money invested in higher education
is money well spent, and that it's fair, therefore, to ask Government to invest more of the revenue from taxes into the sector. We've argued this consistently, but although we have had a relatively generous settlement this year, I think it is unfortunately but unmistakably clear that we aren't going to see all our needs being met by the Treasury.

Please, make no mistake about it, we don't ask those who go to university to
pay more because we want to saddle them with debts. We know debt deters poor
students, and we know how hard we will have to work to overcome that, through bursaries and other means, and to persuade potential students from poor backgrounds that it's still worth it.

We had our annual conference ten days ago. Vice-Chancellors are desperate -
I use the word advisedly - to protect the treasure of our higher education system. Universities are asking to be allowed to charge more because we, as the current guardians of a higher education system which has been built over centuries, cannot see any other way of stopping its deterioration.

I'm really happy to talk to any of you in more detail tonight about why we think an increased graduate contribution system is the right way forward. You'll hear a lot more from us over the next few months as the debate hots up, and the Higher Education Bill begins its progress through the Houses of Parliament.

I suspect we'll not agree on the fee proposals, but there are lots of things
we can agree about. So I finish where I started. Phil, David, Margaret, William and your Liberal Democrat colleagues - you've been good friends to the Higher Education sector in the past. I hope we're not going to fall out over this issue as we take our different views. And I hope that where we can agree, we can work together to ensure a bright future for our universities.

Notes:
Universities UK, with the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Smith
Institute, hosted a fringe meeting, University: What's it Worth? at
the De Vere Grand Hotel, Brighton, 22 September 2003.
Speakers were Phil Willis MP, Liberal Democrat Education and Skills
Spokesperson; Diana Warwick, Chief Executive, Universities UK; and Dr Wendy
Piatt, Senior Research Fellow, the Institute of Public Policy Research. Wilf
Stevenson, Director, the Smith Institute, was chair. 

September 2003

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