Education secretary Gavin Williamson has told vice-chancellors at the Universities UK conference today “to help bring our nation together, instead of driving our nation apart”, as government legislation on freedom of speech in universities makes its way through parliament.
In a barbed address, Williamson observed what he thought were inappropriate values and priorities in HE: “Too often, some universities seem more interested in pursuing a divisive agenda,” the secretary of state said.
The 30-minute speech, given virtually over a video link to the UUK conference at Northumbria University, covered antisemitism, culture wars, low-value courses, NDAs, casualised staff contracts and face-to-face teaching.
A Department for Education spokesperson told University Business that Williamson’s last-minute absence was due to “important Westminster votes”.
“I call on you to help bring our nation together, instead of driving our nation apart,” Williamson told senior HE leaders, adding: “Rather than manufacturing offences from the past, let us instead come together to tackle injustice and promote equality for the students and staff of today.”
The education secretary said vice-chancellors had “genuine injustices” to pursue, “yet too often, some universities seem more interested in pursuing a divisive agenda involving cancelling national heroes, debating about statues, anonymous reporting schemes for so-called micro-aggressions and politicising their curricula”.
“Vice-chancellors who allow these initiatives to take place in their name must understand that they do nothing but undermine public confidence, widen divisions, and damage the sector,” he argued.
Williamson did not mention by name any examples to illustrate his point but, earlier this year, expressed anger at a student vote of the Magdalen College Middle Common Room to remove a portrait of the Queen.
The Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Bill is progressing through parliament and – if passed – will require universities to “actively promote free speech” on campuses. It will also institute a new champion for free speech and academic freedom to the board of the Office for Students (OfS), who will monitor universities and students’ unions and have the ability to levy fines for infringements. Student unions (SUs) are, for the first time, included in academic freedom legislation.
The minister listed examples of injustices he wanted universities to address: “Antisemitic incidents… the use of non-disclosure agreements to silence victims of sexual assault… increasingly casualised workforce or inadequate teaching provision for disabled students”. He reiterated his desire to see all universities adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism as part of this agenda. Eighty universities have so far adopted the definition, Williamson noted, adding: “For those who have not yet done so, I’d ask you to reconsider and to do so quickly.” He has tasked the Office for Students (OfS) with identifying universities opposed to adopting the IHRA definition.
Williamson did not refer to the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review, a focus of the other keynote speech of the day, by new UUK president Prof Steve West. Pressed to discuss the future of HE funding by Staffordshire University vice-chancellor Liz Barnes during a Q&A, Williamson declined to comment.
We need to recognise that just sending kids with low academic achievement into universities isn’t going to magically change them into highly mobile graduates – indeed, it’s more likely to lead them to failure and poor outcomes
– Gavin Williamson
However, the education secretary did talk at length about the need to “drive-up [the] quality” of university courses, which he tied to the social mobility agenda. Earlier this year, universities minister Michelle Donelan said she was “appalled” by reports the University of Hull would not mark down students for poor spelling, grammar and punctuation in exams.
Williamson today said: “Lowering the bar for certain groups of students serves no one. It is patronising to expect less from some students under the guise of supporting them. Effective academic writing requires good spelling, punctuation and grammar from every student.”
Williamson also highlighted 25 universities where fewer than half the students who begin a degree gain graduate employment or further study: a figure he described as “simply unacceptable”. He vowed the OfS would address these “pockets of low provision”.
On the topic of the OfS, which is responsible for monitoring the mandatory access and participation plans of every English university, Williamson made a coded swipe at the outgoing director of fair access and participation, Chris Millward. A source has told University Business that Millward – appointed by the Department for Education to the board of the OfS to an extendable four-year term in 2017 – was not leaving by mutual agreement.
Welcoming the soon-to-be-announced director of fair access and participation, Williamson said: “I’d like to see our access regime re-centred on the principles of equality of opportunity and high standards and to see higher education providers working in partnership with schools to drive up attainment.
“We need to recognise that just sending kids with low academic achievement into universities isn’t going to magically change them into highly mobile graduates – indeed, it’s more likely to lead them to failure and poor outcomes.”
Continuing his theme, Williamson said he wanted universities to deploy a “ruthless focus” on employability. “I believe more universities should be more willing to carve out expertise in more technical fields, excelling on a different set of axes to those used by the traditional league tables. Too often, this can be interpreted as meaning ‘everyone must have prizes’, or that all universities and courses are equal,” he said. Pursuing STEM subjects, applied research, and closer links with employers is the path Williamson wants more universities to follow.
The education secretary said he wanted to see universities return to “traditional modes” of in-person teaching, with online platforms to support – and not supplant. Maintaining in-person teaching “will help maintain the United Kingdom’s reputation for exceptionally high-quality”, Williamson maintained.