Assessing David Willetts’s university education

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“This book is not a politician’s memoir”, we are told at the beginning of A University Education. David Willetts has sought a reinvention, from partisan politician to bipartisan wonk grandee.

That he has been largely successful is to his great credit. You could almost forget that Willetts was the lead minister for one of the most controversial and divisive public policy decisions of the Coalition government. Today, he is enjoying a very respectable political retirement-of-sorts: House of Lords, visiting professor, executive-chair of one of Britain’s most valuable thinktanks.

When in office Willetts was often spoken of by university sector colleagues as a ‘thoughtful’ minister, perhaps in contrast to an ‘ideological’ one such as Michael Gove (who does not come well out of this book). A University Education cultivates that image and reading it one is struck by Willetts’s capacity to cut through the different strands of a public policy problem with useful clarity. Wonks will enjoy it.

But this mid-twenties wonk – once student protester in 2010 – can’t help but find Willetts’ impassioned defence of the student funding system that he built a bit grating. For all that I can recognise that’s positive about income contingent loans and graduate contributions, I can’t be the only millennial annoyed at paying 9% more tax than equally qualified colleagues a decade or so my senior. Either way, Willetts: the wonk must still face up to Willetts: the politician, where even the most erudite and logical defences fail to cut through a feeling of being hard-done-by, and voting accordingly.

Response to feedback

A University Education is driven by Willetts’ response to his political and policy critics: to those inside the sector who felt his market-led utilitarianism had no place in universities (such as Stefan Collini); and to those outside the sector who felt that higher education got away from austerity lightly, that Willetts had ‘gone native’ under the influence of vice chancellors, and that public money might be better spent elsewhere (such as Alison Wolf, and perhaps some Tory parliamentary colleagues).

To that end, Willetts begins his account historically. His survey of the history of universities is enlightening on how debates about universities today have been run and rerun in the past. Some nice anecdotes stand out. Bologna’s first students forced teachers to compete for fee-paying custom (neoliberalism 11th Century style). Adam Smith worried that the “richest and best endowed universities have been the slowest in adopting… improvements”. Gladstone, in contrast to modern politicians, hardly held the sector’s autonomy in high regard when forcing through state-led reforms to Oxbridge in the 1850s.

History clearly mattered to Willetts’ experience in government.

He shows an appreciation of the road taken in English higher education, pointing out the success of universities in other countries without some of the sacred cows we cling to in the UK: a high degree of institutional autonomy; a rigid hierarchy; admissions driven above all by prior attainment; a curriculum driven by research interests; and early subject-specialisation.

Whatever the benefits of our peculiarly English system, Willetts rightly points out the costs: a relative lack of institutional diversity; an obsession with rank, status, and league tables; graduates without a sufficient breadth of knowledge; a failure to commercialise and apply ‘pure research; and little priority given to teaching.

Willetts’ historical account revolves around the Robbins Report and the Macmillan and Wilson governments’ beginnings of mass higher education. With a hint of Whig-ish inevitability, Willetts’ argues that the fifty-year problem of how to pay for Robbins’ ambition was finally solved by his own reforms. It’s a shame that this conclusion somewhat overshadows more interesting and under-addressed questions left by Robbins and clearly on Willetts’ mind: the appropriate balance between teaching and research; the challenge of meeting labour-market demand (especially in STEM); and the UK’s inability to introduce any form of a credit-transfer system.

More development needed

But when it comes to defending the 2010 reforms, things fall a little flat. It is disappointing, for instance, that Willetts’ doesn’t directly address some of the more detailed and sophisticated criticisms of the £9,000 finance system. Andrew McGettigan, the critic in chief of the post-2012 system, doesn’t even get a citation.

Furthermore, the philosophy behind the Browne Review and the 2011 White Paper was about much more than the administrative question of how to pay for Robbins. The market was supposed to improve quality and change behaviours, but we find fewer defences of this principle than expected. Wasn’t the introduction of TEF, on the basis that (as Willetts puts it) “the quality of teaching is the biggest problem facing our universities”, a recognition of the failure of ‘choice and competition’?

This is not the only blind-spot. Willetts waxes lyrical on the merits of market-diversification, arguing that today’s established players were once alternative providers themselves. But there is no mention of, for instance, the 2014 National Audit Office report into serial abuses of the student finance system in the alternative sector, a story reemergent in recent weeks via the follow-up report and then BBC Panorama.

Willetts is prone, like his successor Jo Johnson, to praise the liberalising of the market while using examples of state-driven initiatives such as opening new institutions in HE ‘cold spots’. Indeed, it is the very pressures of a liberalised market that has resulted in many established universities shifting provision away from depressed areas and back towards metropolitan centres.

But despite this rather myopic faith in ‘choice and competition’, Willetts’ is best when explaining and interpreting the sector through the lens of an economist. “We can understand universities better if we understand the environment within which they work and how it shapes their behaviour”. Too right. His suggestion that “there is a trade-off between autonomy and diversity” is difficult to deny when we compare the UK system to arguably more diverse yet also less autonomous systems in California, Germany, or France.

There is also the compelling suggestion that the selectivity and hierarchy of our system might preclude less intensive teaching and learning because “[students’] future is heavily influenced by which institution you have got to, not what you do when you are there”. The implications for universities’ role in training the next generation of professionals – 40% of students are now studying a vocational course – are considerable here.

Yet beyond reviving the idea of universities’ ‘owning’ their students’ debts as an incentive to better and more work-relevant teaching, the book is a little light on solutions.

Owning up

Even if A University Education doesn’t quite avoid slipping into the ‘politician’s memoir’ genre, Willetts’ is not obstinate about his record in office. His admission that the decline in part-time and mature study was an unexpected and unintended consequence of funding reforms is welcome and has been widely picked up on. More interestingly and buried deeper in the book is the confession that funding only 3* and 4* research in REF2014 “narrowed the type of research that was rewarded”.

More broadly on research policy, Willetts does a good job explaining how UK universities’ strong performance in generating research and poor performance in applying it is “an entirely rational response to the institutions and incentives within which our researchers work”.

A University Education would serve as an excellent primer on the policy challenges to any future education and universities’ minister, of whatever political party. I hope Willetts has sent a copy to Angela Rayner, Gordon Marsden, and their advisors; not so that they come to any policy agreement with him, but so they can better track the possible implications of their ideas for changing the sector.

The book is also an invaluable aid to anyone in universities who wants to understand how thoughtful politicians and their officials think about the sector. The phrase “producer power” pops up more than once, though Willetts seems much more relaxed about this than some Whitehall grandees might be (think Sir Michael Barber or Andrew Adonis).   

Much of the attention surrounding this book has focused on Willetts’ advocacy of further expanding higher education. But the more radical Big Idea that I think he wants us to take away is broadening curricula and ending the early specialisation in education, something that marks Britain out from almost every other developed nation.

Willetts squarely places the fault at the door of universities: our school system has gradually been built around developing specialised subject-knowledge for admission to elite universities in a process controlled by subject-specialist academics. “Individual subject disciplines in English universities have a power over admissions which is exceptional by international standards”, which has made market competition “external, between universities, and not within the university, between courses”.

Building students’ subject pathways around the specialised research interests of academics has made our system inflexible, comparatively short, difficult to navigate for those lacking social capital, and lacking in second chances. This is a compelling argument and deserves to be taken seriously.

Willetts points to areas where the sector is reforming; new liberal arts degrees are springing up in some Russell Group institutions, and the Royal Society is pushing for broader curricula. But he resists pointing to a ‘hard’ policy lever that could make change happen. Since the author seems to accept that universities can only reform themselves as autonomous institutions, the focus moves to 16-18 education.

Labour had a half-hearted attempt at this kind of upper-secondary reform in the mid-2000s; it did not go well.

Final marks

Once again, politics seems to be getting in the way of Willetts’ wonkish policy dreams (I’m sure readers of Wonkhe can sympathise). After all, he has had to spend the run-up to this book’s publication seeing his student financing system trashed for political reasons all summer, from both the right and left. David Willetts may now be largely free from frontline politics himself, but for all the valuable and useful insights in this book, he’s not able to quite shake off the politics entirely. 

A University Education is published by Oxford University Press.

2 thoughts on “Assessing David Willetts’s university education”

  1. Profp says:

    If Willets (as it seems from this review) still believes that the market can deliver the changes he wants in HE, then his views aren’t worth listening to at all. If Willets was good at ‘explaining the sector through the lens of an economist,’ he’d produce a rather brief analysis; HE, like education more generally, doesn’t respond well to the imposition of neo-liberal models.

  2. Len says:

    Willetts is given too much respect here as he was in office as a ‘thinker’, nuanced in approach, mindful of sector history and diversity etc when in reality he was a blunt instrument. His policies achieved their key aim of ensuring the continuing financial well-being of the ‘elite’ Russell Group institutions at huge cost to students and other HEIs.

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