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The Times: Universities have had carrots. Now give students sticks (Wednesday 29th June 2011) July 10, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in Uncategorized.
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The Times: Universities have had carrots. Now give students sticks (Wednesday 29th June 2011)

Behind the paywall

The announcement of a consumer revolution for students in the week that
I complete my term as president of the National Union of Students should
be music to my ears. It was certainly a surprise to hear David Willetts,
the Universities Minister, talking about putting power into the hands of
students. There is much potential in the Government’s plans, but there
are also worrying gaps.

The NUS has had its differences with this Government, particularly over
last year’s unleashing of a combination of fee increases and funding
cuts. Before it had even addressed improving courses, institutions or
the student experience, the Government had forced through a threefold
increase in tuition fees, prompting backbench rebellions and protests in
the streets.

This back-to-front approach means that the university authorities have
been allowed carrots but students have had no sticks with which to hold
them to account. Such powers should be given to students themselves, so
I welcome greater recognition for course representatives, students’
unions and the NUS. Providing more information for prospective students
is also long overdue. Measures to tackle this were originally announced
by Lord Mandelson in 2009, even before Lord Browne of Madingley’s review
of fees.

In the current dire jobs market, more information and a charter of
student rights have never been more necessary. Yet in themselves they
will not justify letting universities raise their fees or axe teaching
budgets.

Mr Willetts says that he has put power in the hands of students but how
can students be expected to take advantage of this when they have been
hit so hard by the Government’s approach, and when little has so far
been said about fair access?

Before the Commons vote on fees, Vince Cable had championed these issues
in an attempt to promote the coalition as “progressive”. But measures to
ensure fair access and wider participation have been curiously absent
from the debate in recent days, as has Dr Cable.
Just when students need the secretary of state responsible for higher
education to signal caution over these proposals, securing concessions
and making good on long-standing Lib Dem commitments, there is silence.
While an elite group of students will continue to enjoy a safe and
secure passage to university, Dr Cable must ensure that the majority are
not exposed to chaos and uncertainty. If warm words are not backed by
action, it would be a waste of talent and what might have been music to
the ears will become a cacophony of protest.

Aaron Porter is president of the National Union of Students

 

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