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
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…