In his keynote speech at the launch of the Office for Students, Sam Gyimah reminds us that he has pledged himself to be “Not just a universities minister, but also a minister for students”. A worthy aim, but read his speech and you get a clear idea who he has in mind when he thinks of students. There are references to “anxious parents and grandparents worried about student fees”, students “investing the best years of their lives in their university experience”, HEIs “in loco parentis”, university education as “a rite of passage. Key and core to transition to adulthood”. Only the last two statements have any nod to the possibility that this might not be true for every student but, otherwise, the overwhelming message from our “minister for students” is unmistakeable: university is a finishing school for young people.
How does this square with the HESA data, which records a significant 31% of students entering higher education over the age of 25 (2016/17), or with governmental concern over the decline in part-time study, which typically has high proportions of older learners? Where is the joined-up thinking with the Industrial Strategy, Degree Apprenticeships, social mobility?
Government will be part of the problem, not the solution, if a simplistic view is taken of higher education that deters adults from recognising that they could participate and builds policy narrowly around the interests of 18 year olds. Ministers must not be blinkered by their own “conventional” journey through higher education, or that of their advisers and speech-writers.
Sam Gyimah promises a “laser-like focus on students” with whom he wants to engage directly to “listen to their hopes and concerns”. The DfE review of post 18 funding also undertakes to take students seriously. Let us hope that they all learn, as they pick up these new responsibilities, to pay proper attention to the 31% who have already made their “transition to adulthood”!
Tony Ellis, University of Leeds
Honorary Secretary, UALL