Credit: Office of Michelle Donelan

Interview with UK Minister of State for Universities Michelle Donelan MP

By Jordan Hunter and Ollie Rudden

With universities becoming a key focus of the UK government, we interview MP Michelle Donelan to look at the government’s impact across the border.

Since the pandemic began, universities have been at the forefront of government. With such a turbulent year, we have seen massive policy debates swirling. The job market for recent graduates have left many doubting their future; international students worry if they will be able to have the student experience they pay for with large sums of tuition; Brexit has left those seeking study abroad opportunities in a precarious position; and free speech has become the central topic of debate. The Glasgow Guardian sat down with the minister of state for universities Michelle Donelas, whose role is responsible for these issues to see what the UK government is planning to do to quell rising anxieties in universities.

GG: Many students and recent graduates, especially here in Scotland, are worried about their job prospects. What is the government planning to do to ensure young people north of the border will have jobs or opportunities after the pandemic is over?

MD: Throughout the pandemic, a key priority of the government, alongside protecting public health and safeguarding the NHS, has actually been safeguarding people’s livelihoods and ensuring we protect jobs. And that’s been our mission throughout the UK, and we’ve seen that in various initiatives including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which will stand graduates graduating this year in a better position than otherwise. This week we also introduced a Graduate Support Package, which signposts graduates opportunities; opportunities for further study, opportunities to enter the labour market, or gain work experience. Some of this includes the likes of the Skills Tool Kit, which is an online, free resource of courses that really do add value to students’ CVs, and they can be accessed by students north of the border as well as south of the border.

GG: With Covid still being a pressing issue, international students are wondering if they will be allowed to return, or if it is safe to resume in-person courses next term given the different levels of vaccination around the globe, do you expect students to be able to return next year and if so do you believe it will be safe to do so?

MD: We’re on track in our Prime Minister’s Road Map, we’ve announced that on Monday we will be making further relaxations in line with step 3, and all the data and all the tests have been met. We are on track, therefore that by 21 June we will be restriction-free. We are also doing a review of social distancing, to see what that will need to be going forward and the impact on higher education. However at this stage, we fully envisage that the next year of university will be a much more normal one, with more of the student experience. Of course we’re still in a pandemic, and of course nobody knows what the future holds in terms of future variants, etc., but we’ll look at the vaccination roll out, we’ve vaccinated over 50 million of the population and we are certainly ontrack for it to be a much more normal year. In terms of international students, throughout the pandemic we’ve been really flexible; be that enabling visas being ok if students are studying overseas or remotely, be that the extensions that we’ve made to be eligible for the graduate route. We will continue to work with the Home Office to be as flexible as we can, bearing in mind any potential restrictions or stumbling blocks or barriers international students may face in the future. 

GG: Many young Scots were against leaving the Erasmus Programme, and accused the Turning Scheme of being a poor substitute – how would you respond to that criticism? 

DM: Actually, I believe that the Turing Scheme will be better than Erasmus in many respects. One of the great failings of Erasmus was that it did not support those from disadvantaged backgrounds to engage with the scheme. We know that students from advantaged backgrounds were at least 1.7 times more likely to participate from higher education and that’s something we are particularly targeting with Turing. We’re doing that in a number of ways. We made it a key aim so that those institutions that fit in for funding have to show they have prioritised widening participation and access to their student body and promoted it to all students. We have promoted and targeted our comms especially in areas of the UK that did not engage with the scheme as much, for example we had low up takes in Northern Ireland schools with Erasmus. 

Also providing additional funding for disadvantaged students, so it doesn’t matter where the destination is where they are going to, they will receive funding going towards up to the maximum of their travel overseas, and also those hidden costs. The likes of the passports and the visa costs, which could be barriers to them entering. We’ve reduced the time that a student has to go away for, right down to as low as four weeks for higher education. As we identified with our reseasearch that was a barrier for disadvantaged students taking part. The numbers set to be participating in Turing are set to be akin to Erasmus, 35k in total across schools, colleges, and universities. And the very nature of the scheme means that it’s global. So it provides many more opportunities, diverse opportunities, for students to go anywhere across the globe, either to work or to further any of the stages of their education. And this is year one, we’ll continue to improve it year on year, but the feedback has been fantastic both from universities in the UK, but also from universities across the globe. In fact I was talking to a collection of universities and educational representatives from the likes of Canada and other countries this week that have welcomed the ability to work with us on this scheme. 

GG: The Queen’s Speech highlighted free speech and academic freedom as an issue, we’ve seen this play out recently here in Glasgow with the University, but how is students protesting and academics disaffiliating certain speakers because their views not a use their own respective free speech? 

DM: It is important to say that this legislation we are proposing will not apply to Scotland given that education is a devolved matter, however you’re quite right that every individual has the right to protest and this does not curtail or outlaw student protests or them speaking up on certain matters. What it does do is prevent a situation where students and academics are feeling like they have to self-censor or that there is “no platforming” that individuals can’t attend campuses to present an alternative view. Universities have traditionally been bastions of free speech and it is important that we protect their ability to do that and we bolster existing legal duties to ensure strong and robust action if these are breached. It is not just about protecting free speech, but promoting a culture of free speech.

GG: On the flip side, some people argue the bill counterintuitively forces “no platforming” as universities and student groups will be hesitant to schedule even moderately controversial figures out of fear of backlash from students and or their own staff or the government if they decide to cancel – do you think this fear is reasonable?

DM: I think that fear is not reasonable because this bill is actually about promoting a culture of free speech. If a university was not inviting speakers onto a campus, it certainly wouldn’t be living up to the requirement of promoting a culture of free speech. As I said, students will still be able to protest or to question decisions, but it is absolutely crucial that we hear the opposite opinion that is fundamental to a healthy debate, it is fundamental to our democracy, and to free speech. Universities have been at the forefront of progressing society, by challenging social norms and this bill seeks to ensure that we continue to enable our universities to do that. 


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