A meeting with the Universities Minister left me deeply concerned about higher education in the UK

Written by Niall Hawkins



The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (top left at table) and Universities Minister Micelle Donelan (top right at table) at a call on mental health in education.


Back in December, I sent my Conservative MP, Gagan Mohindra (Member for South-West Herts), a ranting email about the closure of pubs and the failings of the government over the pandemic. When he finally responded an invite was included to an online Roundtable meeting with the Minister of Universities, Michelle Donelan alongside Mr Mohindra. I gratefully accepted.

As I proceed to describe some of the meeting to yu, I will note that references I made to it are paraphrased and that I am writing from notes and memory.


Whilst his email reply certainly wasn’t convincing, the invitation to this roundtable showed me that at least he was doing something. It seemed like a great opportunity to hear for myself how the government perceives the current pandemic situation in relation to universities. Many of us can agree that the handling of the pandemic has been bad and for many students this year online learning has been unfulfilling and lacking in value for money. This meeting was a chance for the Universities Minister to prove to me that the UK’s higher education sector will recover from the pandemic, that universities are handling and have handled the crisis well and that the UK’s higher institution sector is in safe hands.


Taking place on MS Teams, a platform we are all unfortunately familiar with, the meeting was 30 minutes long and involved Gagan asking some pre-submitted questions to the Minister. With these time constraints, it was obvious that there wouldn’t be much room for nuance, but I tried to go into the meeting with an open mind. Universities across the world have been forced to deal with a crisis of epic proportions and the face of learning has been changed, perhaps irrevocably.

These sort of constituency meetings are always interesting and this one was certainly a mixed bag.


With some other students also on the call and others who I assumed were parents, the questions ranged from accommodation fee refunds to the mental health of students and the offers system for A-level students regarding UCAS. Michelle Donelan towed the government line on all matters and whilst it was refreshing to hear her say that young people had disproportionately suffered and borne the toll of the pandemic, the discussion felt circular.


The power of students in the face of this crisis has been limited, reliant upon our Universities, we have had little agency in this pandemic as our education has been altered and improvised. Of course, few people have had much agency in these times of lockdown, but students have been in a position of intense and varied vulnerability and uncertainty.


Michele Donelan only reinforced this in the meeting. Being told to make complaints if we felt our online education to be lacking and noting the unlikelihood of receiving any refunds, the pointlessness of such discourse was highlighted. I was made to feel like a consumer of a market good, not a university degree. How can we possibly quantify the lack of value for money or education that we have received?


No matter how many petitions we sign the universities or government will not refund us any money and we will not be compensated what many believe we are due. Yes, we are paying for an in-person experience and receiving an online one, but we must remember that the in-person teaching we did receive before the pandemic was still not good value for money in terms of the content, the hours, and the resources.


The relationship between the government and universities came across as blurred, without clear dividing lines. The mixed sources of university funding and their nature as autonomous and profit-making institutions is unclear. This is despite the large reliance they have on the government for funds, rules, and now covid-clarification.


Throughout the meeting references made to this relationship made me confused as to who I should blame for this fiasco. Who is in control of our education? The government came across as having rubber teeth multiple times; unable to provide the impetus for universities to provide high quality education or to change the rules in a concise manner.


On multiple occasions, the lack of clear regulation and direction in government-university relations has led to tragic consequences for students. Issues in our higher education system are endemic. From the raising of tuition fees to the maximum government-set threshold of £9,000 in 2012 to the failure of government and universities to persuade private landlords to cancel contracts or reduce rents for students. These demonstrate a clear lack of cohesion or direction.


There is also a very real human impact as a result of the rushed move into pandemic teaching and the lack of clarity by the government. Student suicides have occurred and the mental health crisis amongst young people is being exacerbated by the combined failings of universities and the government.


Donelan informed us about the help government was providing; the £70 million hardship fund and the attempt to achieve rent reductions or contract cancellations (which has only succeeded for a minority of students). Whilst in a crisis any help is welcome, this is not enough, especially when compared to expensive efforts made for the economy such as the furlough scheme.


Attempting to provide some balm, Michele mentioned how this was unlikely to really impact career prospects and that many employers admired the resilience of students who have honed their skills and dealt with exceptional circumstances. Whilst this was nice to hear I am unsure about the extent to which binging Netflix and Tik Tok addictions will make our generation a dream to employ. Let’s not even mention prospects for the jobs market itself

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At a time when the government is flexing the full weight of its power with lockdown laws and strict policing, hearing about the so-called autonomy of universities is not only disheartening but greatly confusing. But maybe it shouldn’t surprise us.

Increasingly, universities operate on an incentive to make profit. They are now more focused on these goals than those of providing quality higher education. Their privatised nature is contradictory and the pandemic highlights this. Outside of a crisis, they will decry government intervention and seek to make money but then, come the crisis and despite the millions they absorb, they urgently need government assistance. This sentiment is reflected in many industries and companies. It reveals just how precarious our ‘liberal’ and ‘free’ economy is.


Whilst my scepticism towards the government is still intact after this meeting, I do have a newfound understanding of the dilemma they are currently in when it comes to the state of universities and the pandemic. The weak rubber teeth approach and the lack of any solid ideology or planning for higher education has left it fumbling and fragile. This is not solely because of our current morally bankrupt government but is the product of a continued ignorance about higher education in politics.

I left the meeting largely disappointed but unsurprised.


Whilst we are certainly not second-class citizens, we are immensely undervalued, and this will come to bite the government back. We are the capital of the future and the government would do well to realise that. High rates of competition, notably in the future against Asian universities will place immense pressure on the UK to retain its status as a power in the world of higher education. Currently, this is lacking. My meeting with the Universities Minister did not make me any more optimistic about the future of higher education in the UK. A future which was already compromised but whose stagnation has only been catalysed by the pandemic.


At the end of the day emailing your MP certainly won’t be able to effect radical political change. But if you do it enough you might get something out of it and be able to see for yourself those who are ‘managing’ our future.


Photo source - Flickr (Number 10)