The ex-minister's new book, A University Education, delivers an optimistic verdict—in spite of everythingby Howard Davies / January 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
What next for our universities? David Willetts’ outlook is optimistic. Photo: Flickr Student fees have a nasty way of exploding in the faces of politicians. The question of whether to introduce them in England and Wales in the first place was so hot that John Major tossed it to the other side of the 1997 election, and a few years later, in 2004, the issue provoked the biggest backbench rebellion against Tony Blair on the home front. In 2015, fees all but destroyed Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems. Although for a time it looked as though the controversy had died down, last summer it began to smoulder alarmingly once more, when Jeremy Corbyn made the abolition of fees the centrepiece of his election campaign. And with a review recently promised by the government, university funding looks as if it might go up in flames once again—with outrage about extravagant vice-chancellors’ pay adding even more fuel to the fire. All of which means that it is interesting to hear from David Willetts, who as minister for higher education virtually tripled the amount that students paid from £3,000 to nearly £9,000 per year, a major reason for much of this latter-day discontent. Though he has recently argued elsewhere that the 3 per cent real-terms interest rate on student loans should be dropped, Willetts’s book produces the most articulate defence of the scheme I have read (more of which later). Other fish to fry But it would be wrong to see A University Education as merely a tract about student fees. The author has many other fish to fry. Nor is this primarily a political memoir; despite the fact that he has been intimate with some of the highest reaches of government, Willetts has always been more interested in policy analysis than in party politics. As much as anything, the book is a love letter. “I love universities,” Willetts declares in the first sentence of the introduction. “The university is the place where every-thing we think we know can be challenged and where new ideas are generated and transmitted to future generations so they will be better educated than us.” This is followed by some entertaining history of the development of universities in the United States and Europe, emphasising the malign influence of the Oxbridge duopoly, which prevented any new degree-awarding institution being established in the UK for over 600 years. “In 1300 England had a university for every 1.9m people, but by 1800 it had a university for every 4.6m,” Willetts writes. “Over the same period, France went from a university for every 3.3m to one for every 1.2m people.” A love of statistics Willetts has a thing for statistics: there are more numbers in A University Education than in a shelf-full of books by other politicians. We learn how many UK students study on the Erasmus programme, how many young Bulgarians come to the UK, and the proportion of girls with an A* in GCSE physics who convert to A-Level physics (only 25 per cent, compared to 52 per cent of boys with that grade). We learn how many UK managers have degrees, compared to the number in Japan (43 per cent versus 70 per cent) and the A-level requirement for the golf studies course at Birmingham University (2 As and a B, perhaps surprisingly). We are also introduced to the arcana of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), plus the alphabet soup of qualifications that now litter the post-18 landscape. Willetts also covers the history of the British university sector over the last 50 years, from the 1963 Robbins Report onwards, and puts up a stout defence of the sector against its many critics. The New Labour target of 50 per cent of young people attending higher education is often a focus for critics, but Willetts refuses to join them: he does not accept that expansion has cheapened the currency of a degree, and goes out of his way to praise places like the University of Central Lancashire, not often talked up by eminent former ministers. Other unfashionable positions are likewise adopted: he thinks universities are not at all bad at developing links with local businesses, and defends the plethora of vocational degrees that have sprung up—even golf studies, though the fact that it’s taught at Birmingham may have something to do with that. (With family roots in the Midlands, Willetts goes weak at the knees about the area.) Despite all this gushing enthusiasm, academics who work in the sector day to day may not respond to A University Education with reciprocal warmth. Though Willetts defended university research funding in government, he cannot resist pointing out that the REF, with its emphasis on publication in highly ranked refereed journals, can reinforce “the classic weakness of academic research, which is scholasticism—looking inwards not outwards.” He quotes admiringly a phrase from Kingsley Amis’s campus satire Lucky Jim, describing an “article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.” Putting the focus on teaching Likely to be even less forgivable in some eyes is Willetts’s view that academics should take a passing interest in the impact of their teaching. Universities are, he points out, “way behind schools in measuring value-added.” He supports the new Teaching Excellence Framework, introduced since he left office, whose rankings have come as a nasty shock to some otherwise highly-ranked institutions. A bronze rating is not what a Russell Group university like the LSE or Southampton expects to achieve. Presciently, too, Willetts points to evidence of rising dissatisfaction with the student experience. As recent headlines have made clear, contact hours are often very low, and in very large classes. Over a third of students think university is poor value for money, rising to 44 per cent of those with fewer than nine contact hours a week. Of course, this reminds us of the elephant in the room: that £9,000 fee. Despite those student objections, Willetts produces a careful, well-argued defence of the system he introduced, which balanced a threefold increase in the amount students paid with a generously subsidised loan scheme—higher fees, in effect, but also more money. He shows the positive impact on funding per student, which had been declining, and produces persuasive statistics to show that poorer students have not been dissuaded from studying at university. He also walks the reader carefully through the arguments about a graduate tax, which—he argues—would be far harder to define and administer. All these points are handled dextrously and persuasively. Meanwhile, in the academy… So why do I suspect that Willetts may not win over those who are reading A University Education on the mock-leather sofas of the senior common room and the plastic folding chairs of the student union? One problem is that he starts from the premise that spending on higher education had to be cut in 2010. He refers with pride to the fact that “we were able to deliver one of the biggest single cuts in public spending of the coalition whilst at the same time increasing the total costs going to universities for teaching and access by £1.5bn. That’s not bad.” But, of course, those of us who worked in the universities at the time don’t think this is any kind of achievement. Why should higher education have been facing such pressures in the first place? Willetts may well be right about the political realities at the time—and he is certainly right that universities have acquired a more predictable funding stream, if the scheme he developed survives. Many vice-chancellors welcome being sheltered from the vagaries of the public spending round, and have reason to fear that if fees were abolished, they would get nothing close from a cash-strapped future government. This debate is not over. But if Willetts’s chapter is widely read it may, just possibly, proceed on a better informed basis than before. The immigration enigma A mystery Willetts doesn’t quite get to the bottom of is one of the biggest political enigmas of the last decade—why the Conservatives chose to include overseas students in their net immigration target, a policy that was announced by David Cameron on television in January 2010. Doing so at a time when the number of incoming students was growing rapidly made it far less likely to get migration down to “tens of thousands” a year; and failing to meet that target, year after year, was a major weakness for Cameron in the European Union referendum campaign of 2016, and inspired those calling for Brexit. Why did the government maintain this foolish policy when the implications became clear, and indeed why does it continue to do so to this day? He cannot bring himself to refer by name to a certain former Home Secretary Willetts thinks the original sin may have been committed “by a harassed Conservative special adviser,” but goes on to lay the real blame at the door of the Home Office. “When challenged,” he writes, “the Home Office response was to claim that overseas students were a problem because many of them abuse the system and do not go home even when they should. These claims were widely believed by policy-makers across Whitehall but were not supported by evidence.” He paints a picture of a know-nothing department uninterested in economics or reasoned agreement, blindly pursuing a policy, simply because they once announced it. The fact that he cannot bring himself to refer by name to the Home Secretary who directed that policy for five years, and reaffirmed it from her new perch in No 10, only makes his criticism sharper. One suspects that no Valentine’s Day card will make its way from 10 Downing Street to Willetts’s House of Lords pigeonhole this year.