Willetts’ long march

Originally published on wonkhe

October 31st 2007 was quite a moment for the National Union of Students. On that day David Willetts delivered a speech to the Sheffield University Academy of Public Service on Higher Education, in which he effectively called a truce with students’ unions. Just as the Conservatives ran out of things to abolish in the early 1990s, John Major had launched a populist attack on three of society’s greatest ills as he saw them: Motorway Road Cones, Benefit Cheats and Students’ Unions.

Ultimately nothing much came of this (apart from the much-derided Cones Hotline and some weak anti-students’ union measures in the 1994 Education Act), but David Willetts stating fifteen years later that his party ‘valued’ student unions as part of what was to become ‘The Big Society’ was a significant moment. “We salute them and what they achieve for and on behalf of students”, he said, “and without them, universities would be much poorer institutions, as would the employers, causes and political parties who take on their alumni”.

David Willetts has now been on the HE scene for a long time. Back in the Blair and Brown days, we felt lucky if an HE minister did six weeks in the job – they would appear, press the flesh in the sector, set up some projects with some cash found down the back of the departmental sofa before being shuffled off to Fisheries, or worse. The only advantage of the constant turnover being that ministers nor their agendas had the time get stuck in the mud.

But not only has David Willetts lasted the whole of this Parliament as Minister, he held the Shadow brief in the last. And as such, he does not have constant reshuffles as an excuse for a failure to deliver in the long term.

Of course, he has many other excuses – Coalition politics, Vince Cable, and the uneasy deal on tuition fees reached in 2010. But arguably, with over eight years in the game, he ought to have been able to fix some of the problems and realise some of the ambitions he set out in 2007. So the rest of that Sheffield speech deserves a look, too, if only to reflect on what he didn’t do.

The 2007 speech begins with the usual tropes of any mainstream HE minister – expansion is OK, the graduate premium is holding up, we need graduates for the modern economy and we need to balance the financial returns with the cultural returns etc. But then he launches into an interesting tirade about part time students – knifing the then Secretary of State John Denham, over the cut to ELQs and the impact on part time students.

The message seems to be, if at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed… the reality is that the part-time students who get support from employers tend to be men in full-time employment from the wealthiest households… this policy penalises those trying to climb back onto the learning ladder most in need of public support.

The Coalition’s lamentable performance on part time higher education barely registers as a political issue – but given the argued link between economic performance and the availability of part time study, both 2007’s opposition sentiment and 2014’s evidence, should be a source of some shame for both Willetts and his Coalition partners in BIS, who agreed that part time higher education should be a policy priority.

For decades, Ministers of all colours that have argued for a market in higher education, have also sought to expand public information as a means to making the market work.

Under Labour we got the QAA, OIA and NSS – and under Willetts we were promised website galore full of SSRs, Graduate Employment stats and even TripAdvisor style commentary. Of course, the sector has either stifled, slowed, or killed with kindness Willetts’ various initiatives in this area – but of course the big failure on the ‘market’ rhetoric was never the choice and public information agenda, it was the rest of the assumptions about institutional behaviour. (Why is it that during every bit of HE reform, student and applicant behaviour is modelled so closely, but senior leadership and Governing Body behaviour is left alone?)

David Willetts’ biggest concern at the time wasn’t students’ unions, fees, public information or mode of study. It was teaching – reflected both in the 2007 speech and in numerous other contributions in and out of office. And it is in this area where arguably we’ve seen the least achieved. “The emphasis on securing research grants above all else”, he laments,  “has resulted in an inevitable pull away from teaching, with professors filling in grant applications while PhD students stand in front of lecterns”.

His answer to these problems: more NSS, a few private providers sucking out the margin value of the loan system for private benefit, and a sharp contraction in the role and function of the Higher Education Academy.

After the upcoming local and European elections, Cameron will have one last chance to reshuffle his team ahead of the 2015 election. And so it has been speculated that we might finally lose David Willetts in the coming weeks.

Some in the sector will lament this on the basis that we will be losing a politician who has come to understand, work with and reflect the sector’s concerns. But I’ll be hoping that he’ll be replaced with someone that wants to make their name identifying problems and floating solutions – giving Labour’s Shadow HE minister Liam Byrne a run for his money, and putting some energy back into the debate on HE as we head in to final stretch of this Parliament’s life.

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