The Society for Research into Higher Education

This is an ex-Minister

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Rob Cuthbert, SRHE News Editor

The dramatic events of early July, when a major Government reshuffle unfolded,  appropriately coincided with the Monty Python reunion in London to remind us that perhaps the only thing deader than a just-purchased Norwegian Blue is a just-departed government minister.

The Cabinet reshuffle signalled the end of high office and political careers for several long-serving ministers, who announced their intention to leave Parliament after the 2015 election. The demise of the Minister for Universities and Science was not even the top story in Education, thanks to the demotion of Michael Gove, but it is the top story for higher education.

As is the brutal way in politics, the departure of David Willetts from his not-quite-Cabinet post was followed immediately by the obituaries, which fell into three camps. First there was the view that it was too soon to say what his legacy would be, a view which somehow did not prevent most of its holders from reaching an immediate judgement anyway. Second were the approving assessments of David Willetts’ various contributions as an exceptionally long-serving minister for higher education and science. And third, but much fewer, were the negative judgments.

Steven Jones (Manchester Institute of Education) gathered up a series of instant-assessment tweets and concluded that the majority view was along the lines that Willetts had protected the sector from the worst right-wing excesses, but that it was too soon to say what his legacy would be. Andy Westwood (GuildHE) gave a measured and broadly favourable assessment on WonkHE on 17 July 2014, also arguing it was too soon to tell, because everything hinged on whether the fees reform would be sustainable or not. He thought not.

There were contrasting views on the Impact of Social Sciences blog on 21 July 2014, from David Prosser (Research Libraries UK), who sees Willetts as ‘a thoughtful Minister who obviously cared about the issues of scholarly communications and the long-term management of research data’, and Lee Jones (Queen Mary, University of London), for whom ‘David Willetts will be remembered for presiding over an utter debacle: a quasi-marketised mess, funded by a grotesquely unfair fees and loans regime that not only imposes a massive burden on students but actually worsens the state’s fiscal position.’

Experienced journalist and commentator David Jobbins was kind enough to describe David Willetts’ departure from Cabinet as a ‘resignation’ in his report for University World News on 16 July 2014, before going on to point out that in a reshuffle painted as ‘a bold move to shift perceptions of his cabinet as dominated by public school educated male toffs from the Tory heartlands of the shires’, Willetts had been replaced by a 46-year-old white male from the south east. However new minister Greg Clark, whose father was a milkman, went to a state school, and grew up in Middlesborough. Much more presentable, but an unknown quantity as far as higher education is concerned and he will be more part-time, because he is keeping his old job in the Cabinet Office as Minister for Cities. Those might be more reasons to defer judgment on David Willetts, except that Clark’s tenure is very likely only to last until the 2015 election, making his stay more in line with the historic average tenure of about 18 months for the HE minister.

Don’t expect any deviation from the line that HE is mostly for economic growth. Greg Clark said in a lecture published on the Conservative Home blog 27 July 2011: ‘We need a new generation of leaders in local and national government with the courage to face up to our deepest problems … we need to be clearer that the purpose of our higher education reforms is to make sure that the courses that British undergraduates and postgraduates take are well taught and of a high quality so that they produce positive returns to individuals and the country – and not unserviceable debt for both …’

As for David Willetts, an article by Adam Smith in Research Professional on 23 July 2014 said that the erudite former minister had entertained hopes of becoming a European Union commissioner but ruled out becoming a vice-chancellor: ‘It’d be a peculiar shift of roles’ (tell that to Bill Rammell (Vice-Chancellor, Bedfordshire, and former Labour Minister for Higher Education)). Instead, he plans to write about the politics of universities and research. His next book ‘will “not be a blow-by-blow memoir” but an account of universities in the UK, covering the funding battles as well as their influence on the early stages of education.’ He would like ‘a role at a university-based public policy institute, not least because he wants to coax academics into improving how they think and talk about policy. Smith quotes Willetts as saying that after sophisticated presentation of their academic research ‘…  the last two paragraphs are throwaway, cavalier and often completely facile remarks on the policy implications’ of their research. Academics, says Willetts, should apply the same rigour to policy recommendations as they do to their research.

This shows, shall we say, a certain failure to appreciate first how the ‘rigour’ of his own policymaking has been perceived in the sector, and second how selective his own use of research appeared to be. The evidence of for-profit HE excesses in the US, for example, seems not to have been on his reading list, as Paul Temple points out in the July 2014 issue of SRHE News. Adam Smith says that Willetts’ departure ‘elicited a stream of effusive comments from learned societies, universities and charities crediting him with erecting the science ring fence in internal negotiations with Treasury.’ This perhaps explains the balance of positive appreciations of the departed Minister: he was good for big science research and perhaps, but much more debatably, open access to research findings. But is this enough to outweigh the ‘quasi-marketised mess’ he has made of undergraduate teaching, the devastation of part-time opportunities, the precipitous fall in mature student participation, and the massive inflation of graduate debt, to say nothing of the future impact on postgraduate participation rates? Only for the elite science lobby and their noisy PR operation, perhaps.

Smith points out what he calls ‘the deepest paradox of Willetts’s time as minister: he had to make the case for reduced state support for universities, shifting the financial burden of tuition on to students while simultaneously arguing for – and often winning – public funding for researchers. … At the same time, he challenged free-market principles by forcing academic publishers to shift their business models towards open access.’ But after all the noise about open access, the UK is left with a model which is out of line with the emerging preference of most of the developed world, and provides public subsidies for big publishers. This is not paradox but consistency. In open access to research, as in open access to undergraduate opportunities, David Willetts professed to improve standards and openness but his legacy is worsened access for some, increased cost and debt for many, a transfer of public funds to private sector providers, and a system which is likely to cost the government more than the system he inherited.

For a long time this ex-Minister seemed nailed to his perch. Higher education has often complained about the short tenure of its ministers, but perhaps we should beware of what we wish for.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England, Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics, Editor, Higher Education Review, and Chair, Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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