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Posts Tagged ‘David Willetts’

NUS HE Zone Conference, Manchester Oct 28/29 2009

Posted by Tobin Webb on February 1, 2010

After two years of campaigning to make these new zone conferences happen, I was very excited about attending and interested in how it was all going to work… It was two days packed full of really interesting discussion, debate and events that I have never experienced at an NUS event before – very impressive in terms of engagement and a great learning opportunity for officers and activists that attended. My only criticism would be the “democracy-lite” approach to the promised policy discussions and zone committee elections. Now don’t think for a second that I am harking back to the arguments of the “save NUS democracy” crowd, because at the end of the day what did happen was 1000 times better than the total lack of provision for participation in policy formation before conference that we had under the old system, but I do think that we missed a trick and I hope that whoever is VPHE next year takes a look at this. Ideally a lot more time needs to be given over in the schedule to talking about NUS policy, as walking around the room with bits of flip chart paper for ten minutes really didn’t cut it for me.

Highlight of the event for me though was the speaker event with David Willetts the conservative shadow Sec. of State for Universities. Firstly, I think it is really positive that the tories are engaging with NUS and that we are engaging with them, at the end of the day the British public may well be fool-hardy enough to vote them into power at the next general election and they will hold all the cards in the review of higher education then – and either way they hold such a significant number of votes in parliament that it can only be a good thing if we can influence their decision making.

But can we…? I think the tories have listened to our message and translated it into their language. I’ve always talked about the danger that the student movement faces in being idle with their rhetoric when it comes to issues of quality in education – never, ever, ever utter the words “value for money”. Willetts (and now Mandelson unfortunately) talk about the need for Universities to deliver a quality education if they are to justify the fees they charge… ok, that makes sense, but if we nod along with it too vigorously, we end up being used by politicians like Willetts who send out press releases saying “I went to an NUS event and talked about value for money – look at me, aren’t I great, and you know what the students gave me a warm reception – clearly they agree that they need more contact hours if they are going to pay a couple more thousand pounds in the future…” .

And there you have it, linking money to quality in education is a dangerous game, because whilst it makes sense for the here and now, it is a slippery slope towards a justification for higher fees – I’ve sat in countless university meetings where the mantra “premium fees for a premium education” has been repeated, the Universities that can justify prestige now are poised ready to start charging the full whak if the cap came off because they have a “premium product”. And then the whole market in HE develops.

Willetts was impressive, yes, but he really didn’t say anything substantial beyond this “value for money” message, which I think we need to be very, very careful about endorsing.

You can get the resources from the HE conference here:

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