The UK Government should free student loan restrictions to allow British students to use their loans for tuition fees at overseas universities, David Willetts, the UK’s former Minister of Universities and Science suggested today.
Speaking at the British Council’s Going Global conference for leaders of international higher education, Mr Willetts observed “One of my regrets [of my time as Minister]: compared to other systems, where our system is weak is in funding students to go abroad. I think there is an implicit disguised protectionism in saying that your fee loans can only be spent in British universities.” Mr Willetts said that he would have “loved” to be able to offer to foreign Ministers that provided scholarship schemes to the UK that in return the UK would allow English students to use their student loans to study in the foreign Minister’s country, on the proviso that the foreign host university met the required standards for quality.
In a wide-ranging discussion on the different global models for sustainable higher education funding, Willetts said that the UK’s current system for funding higher education through government-backed student loans were justified by the subsequent results: “More students are applying than ever before, there is more cash coming in to universities than ever before so I think that the controversial reforms that we introduced have been vindicated by the evidence” Willetts said.
Talking about why and when a shift emerged in UK thinking behind funding higher education, Willetts remarked that “The crucial moment was in the early 2000s when our universities observed that in the battle for public funding they were regularly coming at the back of the queue.”
Willetts expressed frustration that there was a misconception that as the Minister responsible for allowing universities to treble tuition fees to £9,000, he had ‘privatised’ UK higher education. Willetts pointed out that there was still significant public funding in the UK for high-cost subjects and ‘high-cost students’, who either came from low-income backgrounds so were eligible for financial support, or those who were unlikely to be able to repay their loans and would therefore have their loan written off after thirty years.
Willetts then praised the value of the role in higher education in supporting civil society in developing countries, and criticised the UK’s overseas education aid budget of six per cent on higher education, describing it as “shockingly low”.
“I warmly welcome a real radical re-think that has happened in the World Bank in recent years, and is happening in DFID now, from investment in early years education to recognising higher education.”
In reality if you want to strengthen civic life in countries you have to invest in higher education. In countries in regions like Africa I think there’s quite a lot of anger that universities that used to be a significant public asset haven’t been supported. When are we going to have a university of Southern Sudan? The World Bank is beginning to shift its view, DFID is beginning to shift its view, and it’s very important this happens.” Willetts added.