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Former Ofsted chief joins chorus of criticism of university pay packages

3 min read

The former head of Ofsted has added his voice to the criticism of England’s university system, accusing higher education providers of prioritising employees’ pay over students’ prospects. 

Sir Michael Wilshaw, who was the chief inspector of schools until the end of last year, has become the latest senior figure to speak out against the “hugely inflated salaries” given to vice-chancellors.

He said graduates were not necessarily leaving university with better career prospects and called for a greater focus from the Government on the “Cinderella service” of further and technical education.

This morning Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former chief of staff, described the university system as an “unsustainable and ultimately pointless Ponzi scheme” that left young people with tens of thousands of pounds of debts and, in many cases, without the chance of a better-paid job.

Sir Michael said he agreed with Mr Timothy’s assessment, and challenged the Prime Minister to appoint a “big-hitter” in the Cabinet to drive forward improvements to post-school alternatives to universities.

“Youngsters have twigged that going to university and racking up debt isn’t necessarily going to get them a job at the end of those three or four years,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme on the day that A-Level results were published.

“I think Nick Timothy is absolutely right on that.

"Universities aren’t there to put on courses which are going to get these youngsters decent qualifications, decent degrees to get them a job; they’re there, I think, often to sustain the numbers and to pay their vice-chancellors hugely inflated salaries.”

He called on Mrs May to use the disruption of Brexit to make a concerted effort to improve vocational and technical options for school-leavers.

“The big reforms that we’ve seen in the schools system, which is a lot better than it was 20 years ago or five years ago, is because there was a real political will and drive to improve the nation’s schools and we’re seeing that with the A-level results and GCSE performance and so on. It’s better now than ever before because of the great drive that took place, particularly under Michael Gove.

“We need the same political drive for those youngsters who don’t want to go to university or would be better suited to a vocational, high-quality technical programme.”

He added: “I’m not going to tell the Prime Minister what to do, but if I was the Prime Minister, given what we know about the skills issue, given what we know about FE, I would appoint somebody, a big-hitting Cabinet minister, to take charge of this.”

Mr Timothy had earlier hit out at the “university gravy train” – a reference to the pay packages of vice-chancellors.

The salaries paid out by universities have come under the microscope following criticism from Labour peer Andrew Adonis, one of the architects of the original tuition fees system.

The Government has stood behind the existing fees system – which sees students leave university with average debts approaching £50,000 at an interest rate of up to 6.1% – despite pressure from Labour which has pledged to abolish tuition fees altogether.  

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