On Thursday 24th May, a group of students and full-time officers met with the Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts to ask him questions about the changing Higher Education system and rising tuition fees. The meeting was attended by full-time Union Officers Matt Myles, Meg Evans and Tash Ross, as well as John Taylor, the President of the Graduate Student Association and Cal Corkery, an undergraduate student who had organised a demonstration outside the lecture theatre.
David Willetts is the minister responsible for the trebling of tuition fees and the Higher Education bill which seeks to create a market within Higher Education. The demonstration was against the privatisation and marketization of education, as well as Mr Willetts, the minister responsible for these changes. The Union has a policy of free education and fully supported the peaceful activity of those demonstrating.
During the meeting with the minister, the student officers asked a series of questions that addressed various different issues around Higher Education. Mr Willetts was firstly asked what benefits of increased tuition fees would be by the 2015 General Election. Mr Willetts said that he believed universities would be better funded and that rising tuition fees would drive up quality in education, as students would expect more. Following on from this, it was asked whether Mr Willetts believed education was only there to provide economic benefit. The minister stated his belief in education as a social good but commented that graduates should expect to contribute more to society through tuition fees payments than non-graduates as education provided individual good as well.
Moving onto the question of postgraduate study, John Taylor asked what the minister thought about the current squeeze on access to further study, due to rising fees and a lack of funding through a student loan. Mr Willetts responded that he believed the Browne Review should have included postgraduates and that the uptake of career development loans was disappointing. We further questioned whether this was due to a lack of commitment to widening participation for postgraduates from universities. On widening participation, Mr Willetts said that the best thing about tuition fees going up was the guaranteed funding that widening participation activity received.
Asking questions close to campus, we questioned the minister about the effect that policy laid out in the Higher Education bill was having on interdisciplinarity in universities, citing the closure of the UEA School of Music as an example of a school with high student satisfaction that suffered as a result of the policy on recruiting AAB students. Mr Willetts said that he believed universities should be autonomous in their decision making and it was up to universities to decide what courses to run, broadly failing to recognise the impact that the White Paper is having on universities.
Finally, we asked what the minister thought about the fact that a motion of no confidence against him had not only been passed by the Union of UEA Students but also by the National Union of Students at their national conference in April. The minister said that whilst he was personally a bit hurt, he was confident that government policy would have a positive effect on both students and universities.
The Union of UEA Students would like to thank the Minister for meeting with us and listening to the questions and concerns from UEA students.