The legacy of David Willetts

It is with mixed feelings that the sector says goodbye to David Willetts. He has been in the higher education and science brief continuously since 2005 – two years as Shadow Secretary of State for education and skills in David Cameron’s first shadow cabinet, and then three years as Shadow DIUS Secretary of State and three years as Minister of State for science and universities – the sector has had time to get to know him well. That’s a very, very long time in politics.

So how do we judge David Willetts’ time as minister for universities and science? After an action-packed four years of Coalition Government, it is naturally hard to assess meaningful sense of impact or legacy – yet.

That’s largely because his single biggest legacy will be the increase in fees to £9k and the funding system that underpins it. He will always be remembered most for the reforms that followed the Browne Review of 2010. Simply put, his legacy will come down to whether they last or not.

That depends partly on affordability and partly on the desirability of such a system. Neither Willetts nor anybody else will be able to make that judgement yet.

But how would he judge himself? No doubt, he’d like to be seen as a radical reformer – and argue that much of his policy was a continuation of higher education reforms in the past – from Robbins through to the extension of loans.

He was unashamedly – and successfully – committed to growing the system. That went for the number of institutions as well as the number of students. He created a several new universities – the largest expansion since 1992 – and a number of private institutions also gained university title and a growing share of the new loan market.

However, like pretty much all ministers in all jobs, he will feel that he didn’t quite manage to do everything that he set out to do. Even those with a long stint in a brief rarely get to feel that way. Most obviously for Willetts is the lack of legislation that he promised but could not deliver amidst difficult Coalition politics. I suspect he’d long given up on that happening in this Parliament.

I think he’d give himself pretty high marks for protecting the science budget – even if only in flat cash terms – and for persuading George Osborne and the Treasury that they should expand HE numbers and uncap student numbers.

I think he’d also look back pretty positively about the role he has played in selling English and UK HE abroad. Despite the best efforts of the Home Office, he has more or less succeeded in doing so. I think we in the sector should give him the credit for all three things, recognising that none of them were easy (or even seemed likely) in 2010.

He would also stake a claim for putting university finances on a sustainable footing and for increasing the participation rates of the most disadvantaged – both through the controversial £9k fee regime.

Both are also true, at least to some extent. Whilst there are major doubts about the sustainability of the £9k regime – the RAB, planned loan book sales and so on – there is little doubt that in this Parliament at least, it has meant that universities have not suffered the scale of the cuts seen in other non-protected areas of the public sector. Just look at FE or local government.

Whilst never quite being ‘awash with cash’, this has insulated higher education in important ways even while other support or grant funding has declined or disappeared.

David Willetts would be right to say that the rates of participation for the disadvantaged have held up and increased. But there are two important caveats. Firstly this is only for young, full time students following traditional undergraduate courses on a traditional model. For all other courses, qualifications and age groups, this has not been the case, most notably amongst part time, mature and even some postgraduate markets.

When looked at from such a broad perspective it is clear that the number of all students has fallen and so has the nation’s stock of human capital. Our system has become more monolithic, homogenising around the traditional model of an expensive, three year experience.

This in itself creates doubts about the durability of the reforms as more and more of our graduates get their HE before they get anywhere near the labour market, increasing the possibilities of mismatch, underemployment and unemployment.

One area where he might be quick and honest in his assessment of progress would be student satisfaction, the quality of teaching and contact hours. He came to office promising to improve each of these and for one reason or another, none has shifted very much. He will be as frustrated by this as other politicians have been – and perhaps as students, parents and voters have been too.

I imagine that he will look to the longer term for the effects from competition on all counts. He will hope this might shift as more information appears and more competition is built into policy.

However, he will also shiver a bit when he thinks a little about the impact of some entrants to the private sector that were meant to be the rising tide that lifts all boats. Some (though not all) have proved to be the rising tide of something – but it is neither quality nor transparency.

But he’s been an unapologetic expansionist – of student numbers as well as institutions. Fifteen universities have been created on his watch – and each of them will always be grateful for his support.

Industrial strategy and the innovation side of his brief was probably the most interesting and the lowest profile part of his work. Willetts has quietly but surely helped to build a consensus around an active state prioritising key sectors and technologies. He has continued the work of Mandelson and Denham as industrial activism has given way to fully fledged industrial policy.

In the medium and longer term this may have the biggest impact of all, as the role of HE moves from significant but intangible and abstract, to vital and explicit in how it supports key industries.

In the context of their fractious government, David Willetts and Vince Cable were one of very few ministerial pairings that really made the Coalition work (Osborne and Alexander may be the only others). They disagreed on very little and rarely presented anything other than a good working relationship – something that even ministers from the same party have found difficult in recent years.

He was also undoubtedly an enthusiast for and a champion of both science and higher education. This was visible in his accessibility, his record of institutional visits and his boundless enthusiasm for what he saw and what he learnt. Both of these things have made HE policy better by a significant degree. He understood universities and he always wanted them to do even more.

We can only hope that his successor Greg Clark brings that same passion and enthusiasm to the job, despite not having long in the brief before we head in to an election cycle. Although Clark’s brief includes ‘cities’ on top of HE and science, which could lead to some interesting opportunities for higher education following the Heseltine agenda. I’d watch this space carefully.

As for David Willetts himself, there was momentarily an outside possibility that he might be off to Brussels to become the UK’s EU Commissioner. He would have been the best and most qualified candidate for that role, as The  Economist and the Financial Times spotted. But he didn’t get that job and so there will be other opportunities for him. Expect a book or two, a professorship here and there and if he wants it, a vice chancellorship.

And perhaps that’s the best summary of his time working with universities – he’s left them wanting more.

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4 responses to “The legacy of David Willetts

  1. A great summary by Andy. While not listed here one thing that David did understand was the complexities around access and the need for different types of institutions to do different things – whether that is to reach out into the community, provide a higher education to those who would have found it inaccessible (for whatever reason) or provide a more vocational education. There have not been many Conservatives who understand the access debate (which is odd – as it is about opportunity) and he also recognised League Tables don’t give the full picture in this regard. See here:

  2. Whatever his other merits. it’s hard to forgive him for tuition fees. He was warned before it passed that the new system was likely to cost the taxpayer more than before. That has turned out to be true. That means that the only reason for backing £9k fees was simpy Tory ideology. It isn’t easy to forgive such unthinking actions.

  3. I have no mixed feelings at all! He’s been a disaster and it’s amazing the Treasury took so long to get rid of him! Why do we/ the sector/ academics keep on pretending this Free-market True Believer has anything to say to us – or ‘two brains’! (See ‘The Great Reversal’ by Allen and Ainley on our website

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