Scepticism of universities ‘has become Tory party’s new Euroscepticism’

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Scepticism of universities has become the Tory party’s “new Euroscepticism” and it may lead to student number controls being in place for years to come, a former minister has suggested.

Jo Johnson, former universities minister, said the higher education sector has scored an “own goal” by calling for temporary student number controls at institutions this year amid the Covid-19 crisis.

“They’ve given the Government exactly the tools – which higher education sceptics would like to have – to limit the future growth of the sector in coming years,” he said.

Speaking at the Festival of Higher Education, Mr Johnson said higher education scepticism is the “new Euroscepticism on the Conservative benches” due to growing concerns about value for money.

The Department for Education (DfE) has introduced a temporary cap on the number of students that individual universities in England can recruit this year – which is designed to prevent some institutions from over recruiting to make up for lost revenue caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking at the University of Buckingham event, Mr Johnson said: “I would bet almost any money that student number controls that are in place this year will be in place again next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.”

English providers will have the number of students capped at their forecast growth plus 5% this year, while universities in the devolved nations will not be able to increase their intake of English students by more than 6.5%.

The former universities minister warned that providers of social sciences, arts and humanities courses should be “most worried” about the Government’s student number controls.

“I cannot see this Government deciding to free up places in those sectors. They’re very much in the crosshairs,” Mr Johnson, president’s professorial fellow at King’s College London and senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, said.

He added: “I can see all additional funding allocated through additional places being steered towards the Stem subjects.

“So I think there is a real risk that the sector has scored an own goal in this respect and I think the areas within the sector that are going to be most vulnerable are going to be the creative arts subjects in particular.”

His comments come after the universities minister said too many young people have been “taken advantage of” and misled by courses with no real demand from the labour market.

Last week, Michelle Donelan said for decades too many people had been recruited onto courses that “do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals”.

The universities minister said: “The New Labour access regime has let down too many young people. Since 2004, there’s been too much focus on getting students through the door and not enough focus on how many drop out, or how many go onto graduate jobs.”

But speaking on Tuesday, Mr Johnson said there was a “false narrative” that students are “saddled with debt” and getting worse outcomes than if they hadn’t gone to university at all.

He said the narrative that a graduate of a three-year degree is a “complete loser” is “completely bonkers”, adding that it has deviated from reality “in a really worrying way”.

Mr Johnson was universities and science minister until September last year when he resigned from his brother’s cabinet citing an “unresolvable tension” between his family loyalty and the national interest.

Speaking at the same event, Rachel Wolf, one of the people behind Boris Johnson’s election-winning manifesto, said universities’ “relevance” depends on their ability to speak to the new electoral coalition.

Ms Wolf, who helped draw-up the blueprint of Tory election pledges, said Conservative supporters are now “much more likely to be in towns where there are colleges but no university, they’re much more likely to be taxpayers who helped fund universities, but haven’t personally benefited from them”.

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