This afternoon, members of the Oxford Congregation gathered to debate a ‘no confidence’ motion in David Willetts. As a piece of theatre, it’s hard to fault. David Willetts has made some big errors of judgement in his time in office and some bad policy-making has clearly left ill-feeling. We should identify what those errors have been, and call him out on them wherever and whenever we can. From the pages of the Times Higher Education, to this blog, to the Public Accounts Committee and yes even at Oxford.
But people have taken to Twitter proclaiming that as a result of this vote, David Willetts should resign. Gareth Thomas, the Labour HE spokesman called the vote ‘unprecedented and devastating.’
Well, it might be unprecedented. A room full of Oxford dons rarely agree on anything at all. But my jog around the streets of North London last night was also fairly unprecedented as I’m not really known as an outdoorsy-type. As for ‘devastating’? Seems a bit like over-kill to me. David Willetts is not accountable to 600 or so members of the Oxford congregation that voted (it’s full complement is some 4,500). And nor should he be.
I’m not condemning the vote, the debate or the people that took part in it. But a reality-check is needed. This is pageantry – quite effective pageantry as it has captured the imagination of many in the media. But Gareth Thomas, and others confused the pageant with a political event that has real-world consequences. And who knows, it might even help David Willetts in some quarters – already mistrusted by the right of the Tory party; he can wear his no-confidence vote as a badge of honour. “The Oxbridge pinkos all hate me, I must be doing something right.”
A real-world debate is happening right now and its between BIS, No.10 and the Treasury – with the advice of HEFCE and a handful of others – as deals are made to finalise HE white paper proposals. And you can be sure that the Government’s humiliating climb-down on the health white paper will be looming large over these negotiations. They simply have to get it right this time. Today’s vote at Oxford is barely even background noise in Whitehall.
The HE white paper is coming very soon indeed. When it does, a real debate about its ideas and the future of the sector will begin. We will all have a part to play and we must not get distracted by side-shows. Particularly not by those that seek to damage personalities, not influence policy. There is simply too much at stake.