Sam Gyimah interview: cutting costs and helping students thrive

Your questions answered

The Student Room had the opportunity to interview the minister for universities, science and research, Sam Gyimah. You posted your questions in our Sam Gyimah Q&A thread and we went to the Department of Education with Bournemouth University student Lara Sokunbi to put them to the man himself. You can see what the minister had to say in the video. Join the discussion about our Sam Gyimah interview here.

Correction: the question about post brexit research was mistakenly attributed to TSR member Wolfmoon88. It was actually asked by TSR member CountBrandenburg. 


Lara: Hi my name is Lara Shokunbi with The Student Room and I’m here to interview Sam Gyimah, the minister for universities, science, research and innovation. So Sam how are you doing today?  

Sam: I’m doing well, it’s incredibly busy in this job!

Lara: Tommy1Boy asks: will students have the opportunity to submit viewpoints to the review ordered by the prime minister? Or will students have representatives on this review?

Sam: Yeah absolutely I think we are very, very focused on getting student input into this review, because it's very easy for people who have left university to assume that university of today is exactly as it was when they left – in my case 20 years ago. So there are two ways in which students can input into this review: we’ll create a student reference group that can directly input into it, but there’s also going to be a call for evidence.

It’s up to the chairman of the review to decide how that is handled, but I would imagine that those would be two avenues for students to input into it, and I think if there is one thing I want to come out of the review, it’s that we have solutions in place that work for students. It doesn’t mean that we can do everything everyone asks for, but I think it’s got to be seen to be responding to the needs of students.

Lara:  Wolfmoon88 asks: I heard the government was considering basing tuition fee caps on the employability of certain subjects, is there any truth behind this and how would employability be quantified?

Sam: Very good question… no that is not policy. It is not government policy to introduce fee caps for different courses. The first thing is you can’t have a review and then decide what the review is going to do at the start of it, so it’s not government policy. And then the question that has been raised, which I think is a legitimate one, why is it that most courses in universities are three years and cost nine grand? Could there be more variation by having different types of courses so for example two year degrees or commuter degrees where you stay at home and study, just to give students more choice and diversity? And I think there’s a lot to say for that 534,000 people accepted a university place last year and there’s no way we can say that all of them have exactly the same needs and aspirations, so we want the review to look at the market and say actually is it worth having more diversity, but no, nobody is saying that they’re going to be capped. And it’s the last thing you want by the way, is for a minister in Whitehall deciding how much a university out there should charge for a given course.

Lara: Plagioclase asks: given that many graduates won’t ever be able to pay off their loan, what's even the point of having tuition fees? Why not just go straight to an actual graduate tax?

Sam: Well I think the current system is actually a hybrid between tuition fees and a graduate tax. I say it’s a hybrid because yes, you have a loan that a student gets, but actually the payment mechanism is a graduate contribution mechanism -  it’s 9% of your income if you’re earning from 1 April over £25,000. If you’re ever in a position where you can’t pay because you’re out of work you don’t pay anything, and after 30 years it’s written off however much you’ve paid. Those are characteristics of a graduate tax.

The good thing about the current system is the money actually goes directly to universities. If it’s a tax it goes to the treasury and then someone decides what the universities get. I think it’s much clearer having a system where the money follows the student to the university and the course that they are studying. And in the main it works well – what are the tests for me saying it’s worked well in the main? The fact that our universities are on a sustainable footing financially, and it would be a false economy to make universities' situation unsustainable because then they can’t deliver excellent courses.

I’m very pleased that we’ve got more and more disadvantaged people being able to go to university as a result of the changes. But I think it’s also fair that the person who actually gets the degree contributes to the course. There are of course changes that can be made which is what the review is recognising, that the current system can be improved - we’ll look to see what comes out of that - but then we are starting from a position that okay it works but lets look at it and lets improve it.

Lara: Kuma Kuma asks: what are your opinions on unconditional offers given out by some universities? Are these a form of bribery, and do they encourage students to underperform at A-level?

Sam: Well I’ve only just come across this in the job: unconditional offers. I think the way I’ll answer that is the point of principle is: university education is great, but there are also other fantastic alternatives. And what you don’t want is people going to university firstly because they think if you want to show that you are clever you’ve got to go to university, but secondly go to university because the university made it so easy that they didn’t really think hard about not just their options, but what is appropriate for them. So that’s my starting point, I need to look into it, but I think you do want university to be there for people for whom it’s appropriate and they can see themselves doing well at university, rather than because it was the easiest option available.

Lara: Bernadette04 asks: rents in halls of residences and private rents have soared and take up huge chunks of maintenance loans. In many cases of low income students, hall rents can be higher than the entire maintenance loan for a year. Will you be looking at rent caps?

Sam: Well it’s not for me to look at rent caps where you know you’ve got private landlords etc but I am alive to this, I’m very alive to -  you’re quite right to mention the size of the rent vs the maintenance loan. There is also how landlords in some parts of the country demand the rent paid upfront for the year, which causes huge stresses and problems for families often, but also within the halls of residence the thing that is most likely to upset students is if there is a rent increase. I think this is a key part of cost of living, and it’s something that as a new minister in this area I want to look at: the cost of living for students and what we can do about it. So, I wouldn’t say rent caps but I can say that cost of living for students is something I want to take a serious look at to see what we can do to support and help.

Lara: Fly Orchid asks: should we bring back maintenance grants to improve social mobility?

Sam: There’s a lot of talk about this. The review will look at the issue of student support and maintenance grants. Obviously, what the current situation has done is it means that there is no question of not being able to go to university because of a lack of cash, and the more disadvantaged you are the more cash in hand you would get from the loan system. If you set that against the fact that, if you look at the way the loan is [unclear], that’s the last bit of payment you get to - and you don’t pay anything after 30 years - it could be improved, but I can see how it works well by enabling disadvantaged students to get into university. But as I said the review will look at this and we’ll see where we come out.

Lara: Fly Orchid asks: do you think students from poorer backgrounds are put off university by the idea of having to get a loan?

Sam: The evidence doesn’t suggest that. There are more disadvantaged going to university, there are more black and minority ethnic students going to university than we have ever had before. Overall there are more students going to university: if you were to draw a graph of fees and numbers going to university, there is no suggestion that the fees are obstructing people because the fees are not a barrier – you all get a loan if you get accepted onto a place. My big issue for some disadvantaged is actually not just getting in, but actually being successful at university when they get in, and at post-university being able to get competitive jobs.

I think those are areas that we really need to look at. Outreach and getting more disadvantaged students is always something that universities should do, and as I’m sure you know for every £9,000 that is paid,  £1,000 from that goes towards outreach to help and support disadvantaged students applying to university. So that’s a big thing to the current student finance system, so the university's actually going to get £8,000 of the £9,000 that is spent. Can more be done? Yes. Will I be looking at it? Absolutely.

Lara: Fly Orchid also asks...

Sam: Very prolific – it’s no you is it? Not you masquerading as Fly Orchid?

Lara: No! [laughs] Will charging different fees for different courses actually drive students from poorer backgrounds into poorer and less prestigious courses thus, in effect, adding to the class inequality that seems so embedded in our education system?

Sam: Sounds like Fly Orchid is from the NUS. As I’ve said it’s not policy. That’s the key thing, it’s not policy. But what the question highlights is how complex this area is. Because it’s not just a question of what courses are cheaper or not cheaper, there’s also the fact that in some universities they cross-subsidise, so charging for humanities helps subsidise sciences. So it’s quite a complicated system which is another reason why the review has to look at this in the round, rather than go for some that might seem appealing at first glance but doesn’t work.

Lara: Wolfmoon88 asks: post Brexit, will there be any major changes to how the government invests in science and research, including how much we invest into European projects? Or will instead opt for establishing new investments globally in the ways of research?

Sam: It’s a good question. The way I look at this is in higher education the UK is a global superpower. Most people talk about financial services and how financial services are important to the economy. I actually think the HE sector is critical evidenced by the fact that the brightest and the best around the world are queuing to come and study here. And in terms of research, particularly scientific research and innovation, we punch above our weight as a country in terms of impact. Post Brexit what we want to do is lock in the benefits of being part of the EU and participating and collaborating in EU programmes, but also build on that to be the global go-to place for science.

Now how do we do that is going to be the question. In terms of Brexit negotiations science is a real priority I was at an EU informal competitive in this council two weeks ago talking to fellow EU science ministers, the prime minister is very focused on science in our EU negotiations, but also domestically we invest in more. Our science budget is the highest it’s been in 40 years and has gone up two-thirds and that’s because we realise what the importance of this is. And we also recognise that for science to work we need the brightest and the best to come here, so we’re submitting evidence to the migration advisory committee which is looking at the visa system for international students, and I think together all of those things, if we get it right, will put us in a very strong position post Brexit to do even greater things are far as science and innovation is concerned.

Lara: Snufkin asks: considering the equivalent or lower qualifications (ELQ) policy has had a significant and detrimental impact on mature and part-time student numbers, will the higher education review be looking at the ELQ policy, and do you personally believe that people with degrees should be able to access student loans to retrain?

Sam: I think this is a key part to where I think the review can add a lot of value. It’s part-time students and mature students, but also lifelong learning. The idea 30 years ago that you got a job and you had a job for life, and you got your pension at the end of it, has disappeared. The world is changing rapidly, particularly in technology, so most of us in our working lives we not only have to change careers, but we probably need to adapt our skills. So how we embed that in our economy, you know loans and finance systems is just one part of it, the contribution of employers and how it works with employers, and what you can do in different stages of your life, how you can link technical qualifications or do some technical things if you have a degree - all of these things are things that I want to see in the review and I know they will look at quite closely to make sure that it is a system that means that people can continue to have the best skills to participate in the economy and realise their ambitions.

Lara: Thank you very much minister for allowing us to interview you for The Student Room.

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