Yesterday I led a delegation from Croydon - comprising Cllr Tim Pollard, the Deputy Leader of the Council and Cabinet member responsible for education; Jon Rouse, the Chief Executive of the Council; and Frances Wadsworth, the Chief Executive of Croydon College - to meet David Willetts, the Minister for Universities, to seek his support for a multiversity in Croydon.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I reluctantly supported the Government's proposals to allow tuition fees to increase because I thought this was preferable to the two alternatives (reducing the number of people who go to university or introducing a graduate tax) and because by raising the threshold at which repayments start the Government has ensured that everyone will pay back less per month than under the current scheme, making it easier for people to afford a mortgage or rent.
But there is no denying that, despite everything the Government has done, the prospect of getting into so much debt may put some people off going to university, particularly those from less well-off backgrounds who tend to be more reluctant to get into debt. That would be a tragedy.
How do we avoid that happening? I believe a multiversity in Croydon could be part of the answer.
Croydon Council has long wanted to see a university in Croydon - it would help to diversify our economy and improve the town centre and it would help address the skills gap (Croydon has fewer people with a degree level qualification than the London average). The problem with establishing a new university, however, is that people want degrees from established institutions with good reputations and it takes a long time to build such a reputation. The answer therefore is have an institution that teaches people for degrees from a range of established institutions - a multiversity.
And we are not starting from scratch. Croydon College recently joined forces with the highly regarded University of Sussex, which is ranked in the top ten universities in the UK, and the majority of the College’s higher education courses are now validated by them. They are already in discussion with a number of other institutions.
You can see the attraction to young people from Croydon and the surrounding area. They could study for a degree from a prestigious university while living at home. And this different model of higher education might allow people to complete their degrees in two years rather than three and for a fee of less than the £6,000 a year that most universities will charge so that they would graduate with debts substantially less than the costs of having done a traditional three year degree.
What we need to do now is work up a detailed business case and what we wanted yesterday was to get the Minister's reaction and ask for support from his officials and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. I am delighted to say that he was really enthusiastic about the idea and happy to provide such support.
I think this is a really exciting idea. It would be good for the town and good for young people, many of whom I know feel it is unfair that they are being asked to help pay the price for the financial mess the previous Government got us into. I will be doing everything in my power to help make it happen.