What did Michelle Donelan say to Parliament?

The minister has been in front of the select committee - and we watched so you don't have to.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe


Remember all that stuff about bite-size, modular learning in Augar? It sounds like that will make it into the response in the Autumn. Donelan said:

Some of the work I’m doing at the moment is looking at potential for modular learning and how we can expand the part time offer as part of our response to Augar, which we will be responding to in line with the spending review.

Whether that Augar response will tackle the widespread disbelief this time last year that the SLC would be able to handle the complexity of loans for tuition and maintenance at module level remains to be seen.

Restructuring regime

That “other half” of the bailout – the “restructuring regime” yin to the research funding yang, if you will, is coming. And we got a preview of the length and thickness of the strings that will be attached here:

So I can’t obviously pre-empt a report that’s going to come out. But what I can say is the driving force behind all of my work and all of the department’s work in HE is to prioritize quality provision that is fit for purpose and that unlocks opportunities for individuals that are making, at the end of the day, a massive investment in their future and one that they do want to see pay off in some form or another.

I think too long we’ve let far too many students down by pushing and promoting courses that don’t have that value, don’t lead to those graduate outcomes and jobs. But at the same time, get them into tens of thousands of debt, which I just don’t think is good enough.

Any funding from DfE would surely have to come through OfS, which was already busy with a funding review and a look at its minimum thresholds for quality. Those B3 baselines are coming! Brace brace.


We got more of that new definition of social mobility here.

If a student goes to university and then drops out after year 1 and has a year’s debt, what does that deliver for their social mobility? Nothing. In fact it sets them back in life”

In a sign that the “graduate jobs” agenda appears now to be more important than more established (and dare we say, more data-driven) thinking about widening access and participation, she continued:

It’s about them completing high quality academically rigorous courses that then lead to graduate jobs, and that’s the important measure we should be looking at.”


Lots of people have been concerned about student hardship during the pandemic, and so were the committee. Here the minister stretched credibility beyond all usual limits in her framing of the ability to spend some student premium in a slightly different way – an issue we’ve picked Donelan up before on the site:

Students have been affected by the pandemic in terms of finances, that’s undeniable. So most institutions have their own hardship funds and assistance already. And then they receive money every month for access and participation, which we worked with the Office for Students to remove the restrictions around so that they could unlock twenty three million pounds per month for April, May, June and July.

So 23 million pounds each, which is a considerable amount of money that they were able to then access to top up their hardship funds. And we promoted the use of that for things like accommodation, technology costs, system connectivity costs, all of these things. And that’s had a really fantastic impact in terms of trying to direct that support. I think it was right that we channeled that through universities who had these relationships and could identify those students most in need.

We’re very much looking forward to seeing the evidence for the claim for the “a really fantastic impact” line, which surely must be coming given how much we all like to focus on “what works” and “outcomes” these days.


Maybe we don’t care who does and doesn’t get to university these days. Answering the questions “Can you tell me which group of young people are least likely to go to university?” and “And why you think that is, what you’re saying to encourage them?”, Donelan said:

We don’t necessarily want everybody to go to university. That was very much the essence of the Secretary of State’s speech last week…. there’s been too much emphasis on getting students to the door of universities and not enough on completion rates and graduate outcomes.

Too many students have been let down by courses that don’t really meet labour market demands, and that is certainly not social mobility. So getting a disadvantaged child or a child from an ethnic minority group to university is certainly not. Social mobility is about what happens after that.

We need to move away from targets. It should be much more focused on the individual, on unlocking social mobility. True social mobility, not box-ticking and target driven social mobility that makes us feel good with social mobility. That really leads to life chances being improved for these individuals.

Maybe this webpage – containing the numerical targets that OfS’ Access and Participation regime is working to – will eventually be deleted. Barber’s targets certainly don’t appear to be compatible with the direction of travel on access.


Finally, if there’s one thorny issue that the reopening working groups are wrestling with right now, it’s safety and student conduct. Donelan was asked about tricky issues like social distancing, activities on campus, and the expectations if one student living in communal accommodation becomes ill. And there’s good news!

So we’ve produced the guidance which came out a few weeks ago, which is helping to inform institutions looking at reopening campuses. And that’s in line with all the public guidance and the social distancing requirements. And it does go further information on should a student fall ill and how they would quarantine.

So universities have those tools to then be able to apply those those decisions and make those plans in preparation for the autumn. Of course, these are all subject to review, as we all know, that the virus could change or the situation could change. We’ve seen that with local lockdowns, et cetera. So we’ll continue to be responsive to that and produce further guidance or update that guidance if we need to”

I’ve no idea what anyone was worried about. Sounds like it’ll all be fine.

Who pays?

Committee Chair Robert Halfon picked up the case of the Jewish Society at Lancaster University that was asked to pay £1500 in November last year to cover the cost of security for an event with Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador to the UK, in anticipation of protests from other students. “When can a student society afford £1500?,” he asked.

Donelan had views:

There is a legal obligation for all institutions to ensure that freedom of speech and expression is there… we have sent out a very clear message that unless universities are making sure they adhere by those laws, we will have to intervene to go further.

We’re not excluding legislative change in order to achieve that, because this is one of our top priorities… we can only have academic rigour and academic freedom if we can have freedom of speech.”

If that seems like an oddly specific exchange about a particular student event, you may be right – but it just so happens to have ended up as a lead story in the Telegraph.

In fact, security costs for external speakers has been an unresolved issue in campus freedom of speech regulation since the 80s, with Conservative MP Tim Janman forced to drop an amendment to an Education Reform Bill that would have prevented universities from imposing “a charge for security on the organisers of any meeting” way back in 1989. Expect at least “guidance” (if not actual additional legislation) to emerge here soon.

Pay off

And finally. The usual, really.

I myself personally struggle to understand how we can justify vice chancellors being paid two, three times the amount of the Prime Minister, and I think we do need to question that.”

Will temporary pay cuts continue after Covid-19? Donelan hopes so.

We have seen in Covid some examples of universities coming forward and voluntarily making reductions not just in vice chancellors’ wages but also senior leadership wages by up to 30 per cent, and I hopefully want to see that continue and to be the start of something”.

We are missing this year’s look at VC pay from OfS. Should be fun when that emerges from the backlog.


One response to “What did Michelle Donelan say to Parliament?

  1. As someone who has worked in widening access for the last five years, these are absolutely horrendous views to hear from the minister responsible for ensuring access to higher education is equal and open to all who want it. I assume she has no problem with the middle classes continuing to go to Oxbridge, whether or not they are studying a degree that will directly lead them to a (related) graduate job? But god forbid the working class try to.

    I also wonder if it has ever occurred to the minister that in order to improve outcomes for those from from underrepresented groups, they actually have to access university in the first place? Does she assume this will just magically happen if every degree somehow guarantees a a graduate-level job three years after graduation?

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