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The contradictions of a conservative: David Willetts in and out of office

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By Rob Cuthbert

Lord Willetts gave the annual Chancellor’s Lecture at the University of Gloucestershire on 13 October 2016, a university where the Chancellor, Dame Rennie Fritchie, was previously a Civil Service Commissioner, and the VC Stephen Marston was previously a senior civil servant who worked on HE policy with Minister Willetts. But this was not a cosy chat among friends, it was a considered assessment of the state of the university in a global context. It was fluent, it was selectively erudite, and it was possible to believe that Lord Willetts, though not at all boastful, thought he had been a winner as Minister for Universities and Science in the coalition government. Certainly he was aiming to write history, as winners do, even though his subject was the future.

His history began with some of the ‘perverse effects’ of English HE, which he said had for 50 years been beset with a nationwide competition between universities, a situation he blamed partly on the creation of a national university admission system (UCCA, in the 1960s). In the rest of the world it was normal to go to your local university. The English competition led to a university ‘arms race’, which he deplored. It was hard to remember that this was the Minister who argued so strongly for competition between universities as the essential vehicle to drive up the quality of teaching.

The decline in HE’s unit of resource from the 1980s through to the 2000s had, he said, only been reversed when, during his tenure as Minister, undergraduate fees had risen to £9000pa. The new funding regime had then enabled the Coalition government, with George Osborne as Chancellor, to end admission quotas for universities, meaning that the best universities were free to grow in response to demand, and there had been a construction boom to expand capacity. But, as in the US, the English arms race to attract students has meant spending on student facilities and accommodation rather than teachers, and with very few exceptions is not about expanding capacity. It was hard to remember that this was the Minister who had criticised academics for their lack of rigour in attention to policymaking.

Lord Willetts bemoaned the fact that UK HE is not contributing substantially to the global expansion of HE, in which some US for-profit chains are setting up new universities worldwide, while English institutions take years to set up small overseas campuses. It was hard to remember that this was the Minister who had encouraged the influx of low-level poor-quality private providers in the UK, attracted by the lure of students with loans, which government had ultimately been forced to restrict.

He regretted the ELQs policy he had inherited from Labour, in which those seeking to retrain could not have public support if they already had a different qualification at that level, and he regretted the rapid decline of part-time and mature student numbers ‘on his watch’, which should he said have been tackled with a more generous approach to loans. It was hard to remember that this was the minister whose assessment of the cost of non-repayment of student loans had been consistently revised upwards until it had come close to 50% from its original 30%.

As for the future of the university, “I think finally technology is going to transform HE”. But here the evidence was not so much selective as missing altogether. It was, it seems, an article of faith.

In a July 2014 editorial for SRHE News I wrote “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.“ The contradictions in his current account of the future have not yet persuaded me I was wrong.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England, Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com

Author: SRHE News Blog

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

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