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Page last updated at 11:30 GMT, Sunday, 8 August 2010 12:30 UK

Willetts: "Can't guarantee every university will carry on"

On Sunday 08 August James Landale interviewed Universities Minister David Willetts.

Please note 'The Andrew Marr Show' must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.


JAMES LANDALE:

Now I've no wish to spoil anyone's holiday mood, but the A level results come out next week. It is of course a tense time for many teenagers as they wait to find out if they've made the grade for university. And these are difficult times for universities themselves: their funding has already been cut. Is the answer to let them charge students higher fees, or make graduates pay more tax? I'm joined now by the Universities Minister David Willetts. Thank you very much indeed for coming on. We'll talk all about that later, but first of all the story that's leading the news at the moment - the plans to cut milk for children under 5, free milk. Is that going to happen?

DAVID WILLETTS:

Well we're having a comprehensive spending review, so we're looking at a whole range of options. This is one of the options that's being looked at. If it were to happen - and no final decision has been taken - then obviously it would be very important to protect the poorest families and make sure that they continue to have access to a healthy diet. But we are still looking at a whole range of options.

JAMES LANDALE:

But it's quite a small amount of money we're talking about here. It's sort of £50 million a year. In the grand scheme of things.

DAVID WILLETTS:

Yeah, but this is a fundamental spending review. We've got to look at a whole range of options. And of course remember that Labour have said that they would reduce health spending compared with the plans that we've got. So our view is that you know you've got to look at a whole range of options, but we are protecting health. Within health, it's a matter of ensuring that we absolutely make the best possible use of the money that we've got.

JAMES LANDALE:

Is this one of these issues that David Cameron says in the Sunday Times this morning is "affordable in good times, but unacceptable in the bad"?

DAVID WILLETTS:

Well certainly one of the things that we are looking at across the board is are there services and benefits which are going to everyone when in reality, given that money is tight, we should be focusing those resources on the families and people in greatest need? That is one of the themes of this review, and I think it's absolutely the right principle to apply. And it's a principle that does mean that there will be more affluent families who don't continue to get assistance or help that they've perhaps got used to, but I think when times are tough it's right to concentrate help on the very poorest.

JAMES LANDALE:

Let's move on. A levels, as I said earlier, results are almost out; lots of nervous teenagers out there. Isn't the truth that more of them than ever, as ever, will get straight As? And what do you say to your universities who say, look, we just can't distinguish between these students anymore because everybody gets them? You know there is a real worry about grade inflation.

DAVID WILLETTS:

Well there are of course students working very hard and teachers working very hard, and the last thing they want is to have ministers saying that somehow they haven't achieved great things when they have. What universities say to us is that they do want a system that enables them to discriminate between different respective students. It was one of the arguments for bringing in the A* at A level. Now this is the first year of the A*, so it's obviously very early days, but that may help the more selective universities discriminate between students. Of course they can also do their own interviews, their own assessments on the basis of a much wider range of information about the young people.

JAMES LANDALE:

What exactly are you going to do about A levels because this exam was so important and it had absolutely no mention in the coalition document? So are you going to keep it? Are you going to reform it?

DAVID WILLETTS:

We think it's very important to keep A levels. What we are going to do is turn to universities, who as you rightly say have got a big interest in the way in which A levels operate. We're going to invite universities to see if there's more that they want to do by way of designing alternatives, improving A levels, perhaps setting up some new exam boards. It would be for universities to say. We think that their input into A levels, which used to be one of the great strengths of the system and has rather been lost in the past decade or more - that if we can bring that back and encourage universities to get more involved in the design, then that would be progress. But ultimately that's for universities themselves to say.

JAMES LANDALE:

But there is that other problem, which is however good your grades are places at universities are going to be incredibly hard to find - certainly this season. How many people do you think will get three A levels this summer and will not be able to find a place at university?

DAVID WILLETTS:

Well it's very hard to give exact figures. What I do know is that we are going to have more places at university than ever before. Last autumn, I proposed 10,000 extra places at university when the previous Labour government was planning, if anything, a reduction in the number of university places. We're delivering that pledge, so there will be more places.

JAMES LANDALE:

I thought the previous government was promising an extra 20,000. Wasn't that their figure?

DAVID WILLETTS:

This was a typical Labour device. In the final days of the last Labour government, after six months of denouncing my proposal of 10,000 extra places, in the final days they suddenly announced miraculously that they were going to have 20,000 extra places. It was never a credible offer. What we have done is we have delivered the 10,000 places that we consistently promised. It does mean there will be more university places than ever before. But you're right, James, I realise this - it is going to be tough. There are young people who sadly are not going to get a place, including perhaps some young people who really have got good A level grades. And for them, there's a whole range of options. I mean obviously there is the opportunity of re-sitting their exams. They may wish to reapply next year. They may want to do things that increase their and strengthen their CV and make them stand out more to universities. There are other ways of getting training. They can go into work and then try to get training through apprenticeships with 50,000 extra apprenticeship places. There's more places at further education colleges. We're absolutely doing our best to increase the number of opportunities available for young people even in tough times.

JAMES LANDALE:

But not everybody can afford this. That's the problem. Not everybody can afford to take a gap year and do some more training, which they're going to have to pay for themselves. They need either to be at university or they need to be earning money in a job.

DAVID WILLETTS:

Yeah, well of course the other options often are also supported out of public spending. I mean there is a significant budget that goes into supporting apprenticeships and quite rightly so and one thing that I'm very keen to encourage is the apprenticeship itself as a route into university subsequently for people. But I think we should get away from the mindset that there's only one option, which is that at the age of 18 going away from home to university for three years. In reality, there's going to be many more ways in which people can get more education, can get more training. And we're going to widen the range - two year courses, a fairer deal for part-time students, more opportunities in further education - so that there's a greater range of opportunities for young people.

JAMES LANDALE:

But your department is not one of those which is being protected from public spending cuts. On average around 25% cuts are going to be found. How many universities do you expect will close as a result of these cuts?

DAVID WILLETTS:

Well I don't have any idea as to the exact prospects for individual universities. What I can say is that when we check with the Higher Education Funding Council, they assure us that universities are on a stable financial footing. But you're right, there are very tough decisions to take. And as we look to reducing public expenditure because the country simply couldn't afford the level of borrowing we inherited from Labour, we are having to look at some tough options - including above all, of course, the graduates after people have got into work, not whilst you're at university but the graduates after they're in work (and we hope in a well paid job) making a bigger contribution back towards the cost of university education they've enjoyed. And that, if you look at the range of options, that is - we believe - in terms of keeping higher education going, as a driver of educational opportunity, as a driver of the economy, by far the best option to go for in tough times.

JAMES LANDALE:

But some universities will be cut. You don't know how many, but some will be.

DAVID WILLETTS:

Well we can't offer a guarantee that every university will carry on indefinitely, and there are always universities that people keep an eye on if they've mismanaged their affairs and you can't offer a guarantee to a university that mismanages its affairs. But if you look at the overall position, we want to carry on providing finance for universities, but we think more of that finance should come from people after they've graduated, after they're in well paid jobs, then making a contribution back.

JAMES LANDALE:

Let me pick you up on this. The whole issue of university funding you've shuffled off to a review that is currently being conducted by Lord Browne, and yet you as a government seem to have pre-empted this by going for the graduate tax, the graduate contribution option. Is that the favoured option of yourselves because there are many Conservatives who are very worried about this?

DAVID WILLETTS:

Well what we've done is we have asked John Browne to look at this option as part of his review. It's very important that when John Browne reports everybody feels that every possible option has been properly looked at. So we think it's very important that this option should be looked at by John Browne. And he's agreed that he will, so it will be included in his review. But, yeah, we do have a preference for a way of going forward that involves graduates after they have got into work - and still graduates on average earn at least £100,000 more during their lives than non-graduates - we do think that then graduates should make a higher contribution to the benefits of the university education they've received. That does seem to us to be a sensible approach, and I very much hope that when John Browne reports he's got some imaginative ideas for delivering that.

JAMES LANDALE:

So you agree with your boss, Vince Cable, that a graduate tax is the progressive option?

DAVID WILLETTS:

Well we've said look at a graduate contribution. We think it is progressive - as people earn more, they pay more back. But of course there are other key criteria as well that we've also agreed on: we need to get improved social mobility; we need to look after the interests of students from poorer backgrounds; we need to get a more diverse range of universities and higher education institutions into the system. Remember this time, for the first time, there's going to be a new BPP University College of Law, which is going to be part of clearing - extra places this summer. So there's a whole range of things that we want the Browne Review to look at; and at the end of the day, we want to have more opportunities for young people as a result.

JAMES LANDALE:

So all those Conservatives who are saying this isn't going to happen because there'll be a brain drain as students go to other universities, there'll be rows with the Treasury about where the graduate tax goes and whether it comes back to education and whether or not it's hypothecated, they're wrong; this is going ahead?

DAVID WILLETTS:

We're talking about a graduate contribution paid by people out of their earnings when they're in employment subsequently. Now the exact design of that is an issue that we want John Browne to look at. He's the right guy to be looking at it, and then we'll take the decisions collectively as a cabinet.

JAMES LANDALE:

Let's move onto the wider political scene. It's the end of the political term; everybody's about to go off on their holidays. We've had had some skirmishes over the spending cuts, but do you accept that those are just early skirmishes and that it is going to get really bad both in terms of the politics but also in terms of the reality for people on the ground when these cuts are announced this autumn?

DAVID WILLETTS:

I do think we recognise this - that it is very tough and there are indeed lots of very difficult decisions that we're going to have to take in the months ahead. Not because we wanted to do this. I would much rather have entered government in very different circumstances, but we've entered government with £1 of every £4 the government's spending being borrowed. We've inherited - as always from Labour - just a complete mess in the public finances, and we've got to sort it out. But what David Cameron rightly stresses at every discussion we have around that cabinet table is at the end of the day he wants a system which decentralises power, which has less state control; and he also wants a system that prepares for the long-term, which invests in younger people who are the future of our country. And those are the two key tests that we want these very tough decisions to be measured against, so that people can see that at the end of the day it's a better, stronger economy and a better, stronger society.

JAMES LANDALE:

But isn't that the problem - that for all the talk of reform and big society and things like that, ultimately this is a government that will be judged on how it cuts the deficit?

DAVID WILLETTS:

It will be judged on how it cuts the deficit, absolutely, and that's the crucial point. We need to cut the deficit, we have to cut the deficit, but we will do so in ways … At the end of the day, I want to see universities stronger as a result of this. I want to see more practical vocational training opportunities in apprenticeships. We want to have a healthcare system that is higher quality than now. We want higher standards in schools. So at the end of the day, even after reducing public spending, we want people to think that we've emerged with a better system and one that costs less money.

JAMES LANDALE:

So is this coalition really working because every so often you know ministers will say this is all fine and dandy, but then every so often little tensions come up over, for example last week, over the council tax … council housing policy that was announced and things like that? I mean is your relationship with Vince going to sustain when these things are difficult?

DAVID WILLETTS:

Well Vince and I are members of different political parties. Vince was a special adviser to John Smith. I worked in the policy unit of Margaret Thatcher. We come from different backgrounds and are in different political parties. However we work together and we work together day in, day out. And I actually think often it improves the quality of decision taking. What you find is you have to offer evidence. You are challenged and questioned by someone from a different political party. That's what I see happening around the cabinet committee as well, and I think around the cabinet table, cabinet committee tables it leads to better, more open, more transparent decision taking. And working together is what the British people expect us to do and what we're absolutely committed to doing.

JAMES LANDALE:

While we've been on air, I have to say that Downing Street has put out a statement saying that this idea of scrapping free milk for the under-5s will not now go ahead. It's been overruled by Downing Street. Some confusion in government over this?

DAVID WILLETTS:

Well we have to look at a whole range of options. And as options are looked at, of course they have to be assessed on their merits. But the fact is that when we come at the end of the day to announce our public expenditure decisions in the autumn, I think people will see that we've managed to combine progressive values and also the necessary reductions in public spending that have to happen.

JAMES LANDALE:

I'm sorry to spring these things on you as they're actually happening, but I mean clearly it just shows you know the health department says we need to cut this and then the politics of it makes it difficult and somebody in Downing Street says no, I don't that'll run?

DAVID WILLETTS:

Yeah, well we have an endless process of assessing options. And of course it's inevitable that as you go through these decisions, some options are looked at and some options go ahead and others don't. That's how decisions are taken.

JAMES LANDALE:

David Willetts, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

DAVID WILLETTS:

Thank you, James.

INTERVIEW ENDS




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