Posted by: Nick Hillman | 04/05/2010

My open letter to Cambridge academics and students

I have written an open letter to Cambridge’s academics, lecturers and students. This has been distributed via the heads of colleges and is also featured in today’s Cambridge News.

However, many people will not have seen the full text so I am also publishing it here. I would be very interested to hear any responses.

If I am elected, higher education will be a top issue for me.

I have also put a link to a video of all the candidates talking about tuition fees at the bottom of the post.

An open letter to the academic community in Cambridge from Nick Hillman, the Conservative Candidate in the General Election

Dear All,

I am writing to you to outline my views because I am the Conservative candidate for Cambridge at this year’s general election, and because I regard the future of our university sector as one of the most important issues facing our country.

My background includes studying at three different universities, including Cambridge. For the past two-and-a-half years I have been Chief of Staff to David Willetts, the Shadow Secretary of State for Universities and Skills.

A fair deal for undergraduates: The cross-party review of student finance recently started work. I support this review of experts, although I would have liked it to have started in 2007 (when we called for it to do so) and I would also have liked the review team to have included greater student representation. Despite its imperfections, however, I think it would be irresponsible to reject the review out of hand in advance of its conclusions – as the Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP have already done.

Some people have claimed the review is nothing more than a backdoor way to raise tuition fees after the election, but it is unlikely to be taken seriously by anyone if that is all it is. Any increase in fees under the current model would have an enormous cost to the Treasury – for example, the extra loans would be huge – and it is not clear where the money would come from at a time of fiscal restraint. Instead, I believe the review should provide a more fundamental review of all aspects of student finance. I would also like to see the student finance review put widening participation issues at its heart. Personally, I will oppose any increase in the upfront cost of going to university unless there is a very clear matching benefit in terms of the quality of the student experience. I would also like to see urgent reforms to improve the woeful support on offer to part-time students at Madingley Hall and elsewhere.

I would urge anyone who has been attracted to the Lib Dems’ position on tuition fees to look in detail at their policy. It would not affect the vast majority of existing students and could harm the quality of the education on offer, especially in cities like Cambridge. Moreover, by holding the number of students down, it risks limiting the chances of people from under-represented groups reaching university.

Research: I have been criticised for talking as much about research income as undergraduate tuition fees. But I make no apology for doing so because research income is vitally important to our leading universities – as is income from other sources like endowments and university spin-outs.

A Conservative Government would delay the Research Excellence Framework for a period of up to two years. This will allow a proper consultation with academics and universities on how research money is allocated across the sector. Above all, I believe the distribution of research money should recognise excellence.

University expansion: As a former secondary school teacher, I believe it is the hallmark of a civilised society to send more people to university. But, in the Government’s own words: ‘Since 1998 the UK participation rate for higher education has slipped from 7th in the OECD to 15th.’

Today, we are in an absurd position. On the one hand, ministers claim to be in favour of sending more people to university. On the other hand, they are fining universities, including Anglia Ruskin, hundreds of thousands of pounds for ‘over-recruiting’ in 2009.

I am in favour of university expansion so that all those with the aptitude and desire to study at university level can do so – as outlined in the Robbins report half a century ago. I regret that Vince Cable and our local Lib Dem candidate have argued so strongly against university expansion. In contrast, my party is committed to easing this year’s university entrance crisis by offering 10,000 additional fully-funded university places for the 2010/11 academic year, funded by encouraging the early repayment of student loans from people who have left higher education.

University autonomy: I support university autonomy because, when politicians meddle in the day-day running of universities – as Gordon Brown tried to do in the notorious Laura Spence row – it usually ends in tears. I also support the Haldane Principle which limits the politicisation of research funding. And I support the idea of universities diversifying their income streams, as Cambridge has done so successfully, so that politicians hold less sway over them.

Public Spending: The national debt is huge and unsustainable. As with every previous Labour Government, the Government has run out of money and, as the Institute of Fiscal Studies has said, whoever wins the next election is going to have to take some very tough decisions on public spending. But Cambridge is currently being disproportionately affected by the cuts that have already been announced – in fact we are worse affected by many of the cuts, per-head of the population, than any other university city. So if I am elected as the MP, I will work very hard to make sure both Cambridge City and the Cambridge academic community have a louder voice at Westminster and are treated fairly.

Yours sincerely,

Nick Hillman

Conservative Candidate for Cambridge

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