This article is more than 5 years old

The attention of a junior minister

Do junior ministers of higher education matter? Phil Pilkington shares a historical perspective on the relationship between the sector and government.
This article is more than 5 years old

Phil Pilkington is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at Coventry and Deputy Chair at Middlesex University SU

Junior minister posts are either a rung on the ladder to a great office of state, or a slide down the greasy pole of politics.

The big changes to the sector have always been carried out by the Secretary of State and not the junior minister – Keith Joseph, Kenneth Baker, David Blunkett were the serious players. Sometimes they have been seen as a bag carrier (William Waldegrave for Keith Joseph), sometimes colourful and comic (Rhodes Boyson), sometimes another step for the junior ranks musical chairs towards cabinet rank (John Denham, Andrew Smith).

Blurred vision

They pass by in a blur. The sector craves attention, wondering whether the new minister is amenable to the sector, but it’s not clear that it matters. New Labour had lots of them. There was the educational panjandrum Lady Tessa Blackstone, head of Birkbeck before becoming minister (1997-2001); and after her ministerial career Vice Chancellor of Greenwich University. Other Labour ministers would stay in education or move on. Kim Howells moved on very considerably from student leader of the Hornsey Art School occupations of 1968, Communist Party of Great Britain, NUM official to Chair of the Parliamentary Security Committee via fourteen forgotten months as minister for higher education.

Some have made a mark. Conservative George Walden (1985-87) seemed urbane, appropriately mandarin, and a candidate for cosmopolitan erudition (time served in the Foreign Office in China and France helped). He did go for the jugular of the OU with an attack that seemed minatory and faintly absurd. Having enrolled on a course on modernist art, he fulminated in the press:

Letting the ideologues loose on painting is dangerous enough – giving them new interpretative tools as well is lethal. Semiotics in the hands of a leftist art critic are like computers at the fingers of sociologists – whole new permutations of misconceptions are possible”.

Fact or fiction?

We may look back on a minister like Rhodes Boyson (1979-82) and wonder: was he a fictional character? Who could have imagined him not just as a minister of higher education, but as an MP or even as a headteacher. I witnessed this mutton-chopped minister in an early ministerial appointment to address a meeting of NUS delegates, having announced the reform of funding students’ unions from per capita funding to block grant allocations from the institutions. Dilating on his views on education and further afield, his success at the meeting was measured by the then President of NUS, David Aaronovitch, literally falling off his chair (and he was supposed to be ‘in the Chair’).

Rhodes Boyson disliked his ‘wet’ Secretary of State, Mark Carlisle, and became frustrated at his boss’ lack of enthusiasm for his junior minister’s opinions. Boyson did though manage to introduce “full cost tuition fees” for international students. Nobody had actually calculated at either the institution or national level, but the ‘reform’ had a certain populist attraction of stopping these foreigners getting what was not theirs.

Boyson also believed there were too many students in universities and that the continuing decline in the behaviour of the young was caused by left wing teachers. A member of the notorious Monday Club which campaigned within the Conservative Party for compulsory repatriation to Asia and the West Indies, his views now seem impossibly dated – but we should beware of some of the foundations of his world view which linger on: cruel repatriation (Windrush), a distrust of non-instrumental intellectual activity (experts, sociologists, no jobs for business), a distrust and suspicion of teachers (who are teaching anti-Brexit in universities), and an idealisation of a national character (that is, whoever thinks and believes like me) with an ambiguity about what is national (Britain, England, UK).

His other major ‘success’ was to make a severe cut in funding to the University Grants Committee and thus actually reduce the number of students in universities – a cut that led later to corporate governance reforms within universities who had struggled to adjust to reduced funding. Polytechnics expanded to pick up the demand.

The hegemony of fiscal rectitude

David Willetts carved out the role for himself as an exception to almost all his predecessors. He displayed a close interest in and commitment to universities before the 2010 election, ‘taking soundings’, and visiting institutions. It was almost inevitable he would be David Cameron’s choice, and that he would be junior to the Business Secretary rather than the Education Secretary but with cabinet rank – perhaps the last recommendation from the Robbins report to be enacted: universities needed a place at the cabinet table.

The first sentence in his (magisterial, of course) A University Education states unequivocally “I love universities”. And despite the campaigners for Free Education and their protests which met his campus visits, he may have saved universities from the fate of other parts of the public sector. Consider the counterfactual of not tripling tuition fees and succumbing to the cuts of the same proportion delivered on local government and further and secondary education. Given that Willetts would not be able to overcome the received wisdom of the hegemony of fiscal rectitude, what else could he do to prevent the higher education sector from penury and then towards a permanent decline?

Some of his opinions given in The New Conservatism (1992) and the Conservative Party Manifesto Why Vote Conservative (1997) are worth engaging with – they suggest a satire in a minor key regarding universities:

The real tragedy of twentieth century Britain has been the way in which the state has taken over and then drained the lifeblood from the series of institutions which stood between the individual and the government…other institutions like our universities have become so dependent on public funds that they have fallen prey to the disease of believing that the best way to embarrass politicians into giving them more taxpayers’ money is to say how terrible things are.”

Forget the Great War, depression, colonial wars and imperial genocide, ignore the troubles in Ireland (a civil war), the destruction of trade unions by the war against the miners, et al. The real tragedy has been the growth of the state. Was it a better alternative that the great and the good founded and funded universities up to the 1920s and decided how that funding should be spent (as a form of oligarchy)? Was the Macmillan government to blame for commissioning the Anderson and Robbins reports which put more tax revenue at the sector’s disposal by actually growing the sector? Did Lloyd George start the rot with the creation of the University Grants Commission in 1919?

Of course, what was not included in Willetts’ diagnosis was that the sector’s leadership were very unsuccessful in preventing the fall in the unit of resource in the 80s – and that sometimes politicians are impossible to embarrass – see John Major’s premiership, dominated by bad behaviour and European splits.

Nevertheless, David Willetts demands attention and respect as a former junior minister. From the low salience that higher education had in government policy, when much good and bad was done to it with little remark, David Willetts brought it centre stage. He genuinely engaged. But his world view was formed by a sort of fugue of conservative motifs that have had profound impacts: limited government which is less corrupt than big government; the free market is best for all; freedom equals prosperity; markets serve the community; through markets we have national integration. Not all attention, it seems, is welcome.

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