When the news broke last night that David Willetts was resigning as the universities and science minister, Stewart Wood, one of Ed Miliband’s closest advisers and the shadow minister without portfolio, tweeted: “I’ve always found David Willetts to be a decent, principled & loyal man. I hope his party misses him & both his brains when he steps down.” Wood was an academic in a previous life and it’s likely that few of his former colleagues, or students for that matter, will be as sorry as he was to see Willetts go.
Since the formation of the coalition in government in 2010, “Two Brains” (the nickname predictably bestowed on Willetts by journalists in recognition of his intellectual accomplishments) has been the focus of considerable discontent among both academics and students with higher education reforms that have intensified the managerialist revolution that has swept through British universities over the past two decades and seen tuition fees rise. Whatever one thinks of those reforms—and the depredations visited on university teaching staff in the era of centralised audit, “research assessment” and the rest, as my erstwhile colleagues in higher education never cease to remind me, are many—Willetts at least expended a good deal of intellectual energy (and, it has to be said, ingenuity) in trying to defend them.
Anyone who’d followed Willetts’s political and intellectual evolution over the years—from Thatcherite true believer (he worked in the Downing Street Policy Unity in the mid-1980s) to prophet of “civic conservatism”, a precursor of the “Big Society” (remember that?) and Philip Blond’s “Red Toryism“—would have understood what his biggest challenge as universities minister was: to reconcile what, on the face of it, was irreconcilable. On the one hand, a reform agenda that appeared to replace the notion of higher education as the provision of a public good with a vision of it as a market in which consumer (i.e. student) choice is sovereign, and, on the other, an account that he’d been developing for nearly two decades of the importance of the “civic institutions” that lie somewhere between the market and the state.
Willetts’s preferred argumentative strategy was to concede his opponents’ premises—for instance, that universities are institutions of a distinctive sort, neither arms of the state nor businesses subject to the logic of the market but autonomous bodies which governments should deal with at arm’s length—and then to insist, often against accumulating evidence to the contrary, that nothing the government was doing threatened those very premises. A piece he wrote for the Times Higher a couple of years ago, responding to Stefan Collini’s book What Are Universities For?, is a case in point. Willetts breezily agrees with some “important truths” laid out in Collini’s book about the value of the humanities, university autonomy and higher education as a public good and then says, effectively, that there’s nothing to worry about. Government policy “reflect[s] the public value of what universities do”.
This was never especially convincing or reassuring, as the final paragraph of Willetts’s reply to Collini makes clear: “I recognise that one of the real challenges of public policy is to look beyond consumers, contracts and services to see the institution that lies behind. Our White Paper was going to have a chapter on the value of the university, but it ended up on the cutting room floor…”
I once interviewed Willetts when researching a profile of the philosopher and writer John Gray, who taught him politics at Oxford. I asked Willetts about what David Marquand once described as Gray’s “intellectual journey from Thatcherite champion to scarifying enemy of market fundamentalism”. He told me: “John was never in with or interested in the Conservative Establishment. He became increasingly worried that free-market conservatism contained the seeds of its own destruction as it eroded the moral traditions which Conservatives themselves value and which capitalism needs to survive.” Willetts shared many of the same worries.
The pity of his career as a not-quite-front-rank politician is that they mostly ended up on the “cutting room floor.”