Staying calm at the centre of controversy

HAPPY David Willetts MP
HAPPY David Willetts MP

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For a man who has just presided over the most controversial shake-up of higher education in recent history, David Willetts appears remarkably relaxed.

Sipping on a pint of cider and tucking into a burger layered with bacon rashers, barbecue sauce, cheese and onion rings – he discreetly removes the onion and puts it to one side – the Havant MP is smiling and at ease.

It’s a hot September afternoon and we’re in the mock Tudor Old House at Home pub, right across from the politician’s constituency office.

And it soon becomes apparent, that unlike the burger sitting on his plate, Mr Willetts’ conscience is not weighing heavy.

The minister for universities and science says: ‘I’ve been in politics long enough to realise almost anything real and substantial you try to do is going to be controversial.

‘When I inherited BIS (Business, Innovation and Skills department) I faced big savings from the higher education budget.

‘I made the decision not to cut student numbers and not to cut funding from universities, but to shift the way in which the money came in. I’m absolutely clear in my own mind it was the right thing to do.

He adds: ‘As a result of the changes, it looks quite possible that at the end of the public spending period (in 2015) our universities will be better funded.’

Mr Willetts knows he will be judged by his two biggest strategic decisions over the past year – increasing tuition fees to fund university teaching directly and maintaining research budgets.

His critics are fierce. They argue the increase in fees from £3,375 to a maximum of £9,000 next year will deter poor students from pursuing higher education because they fear graduating with massive debts.

There are also concerns the semi-privatisation of universities (through direct student funding) will not only see the closure of many institutions that fail to attract high student numbers – hence money – but will also have a detrimental impact on the arts. This is because they may be seen as offering less value for money than, for instance, chemistry with specialist lab technology.

Others suggest top-tier universities like Oxbridge will in future go fully private and set their own, higher, tuition fees, which could result in a return to their elite status with only the richest being able to afford to attend.

Mr Willetts does not like to be drawn on what he no doubt views as conspiracy theories, and instead makes a compelling argument in favour of the new funding system.

The 55-year-old father-of-two explains: ‘I hope the higher tuition fees are not a deterrent.

‘Sometimes people say “I can’t afford to go to university”, but there’s no payment up front.

‘The current system means paying nine per cent on earning above £15,000 – what we’re offering is nine per cent on earnings above £21,000. So graduates on £25,000 who now pay back £900 will under our system only pay £360 a year.

‘I can’t think of a more progressive way to finance universities than asking the beneficiaries to pay back.’

With the funding power transferring to students next year, the coalition government has ordered universities to publish in unprecedented detail what their courses offer in the way of teaching staff, hours and graduate opportunities, as well as what A-levels successful graduates took.

Universities will also be subject to fewer inspections, unless a student makes an official complaint.

Are we giving too much power too soon to generations of 18-year-olds straight out of school? Mr Willetts doesn’t think so.

In fact, he sees this new layer of scrutiny as a wake-up call for teaching, which he believes has for too long played second fiddle to research which is highly prestigious and competitive.

‘I think young people these days are serious-minded,’ he says.

‘I don’t think they are apathetic, but until now they haven’t had the information to see what universities are offering and to make the best decisions.

‘I also think it’s time the teaching side of universities, which is getting less and less competitive, is sharply scrutinised.

‘We in successive governments have created a highly competitive system for allocating research funding, therefore universities have focused on research rather than teaching.

‘I don’t think the system has got its priorities right. So it’s a good thing we’re letting students have a say, and rewarding good teaching with money. ‘

Mr Willetts cannot guarantee any university will carry on under the new free-market model, but he is determined to give the higher education sector greater autonomy than ever before – even if that means universities going their own way.

He says: ‘The success of our education depends on freedom from control. I want more power in the hands of universities and I want to drive back to the historic notion of high-quality teaching.

‘It’s a decision for universities (to go private), but I hope they will want to take on student from all backgrounds, and I doubt they can match the generosity of our scheme.’

In keeping with his pro-student agenda, Mr Willetts wants to lift the lid on so-called ‘facilitating’ A-levels viewed favourably by the best universities.

But he hasn’t helped himself by calling for traditional subjects such as science and maths to take priority over ‘soft A-levels’ like dance and media studies in the race for university places.

Mr Willetts, who took English, history and German A-levels, says: ‘I value the arts and I’m genuinely baffled by people in the arts who say otherwise.

‘I have secured as much protection for arts and humanities research as science. I make no criticisms of dance, music or DT, if people know very clearly that’s what they want to study.

‘All I’m saying is that some core A-levels maximise your chances of doing a wide range of courses at university and of getting into competitive universities. I’m describing the system as it works.’

Mr Willetts, who is married to the artist Sarah Butterfield and whose son Matthew, 19, is reading natural sciences at Cambridge while his daughter Imogen, 22, read English and history of art at York, adds: ‘While I’m delighted at the stronger uptake of science A-levels this year, I don’t have a view that everyone should go off and do physics or chemistry.

‘Subjects like foreign languages are vital to engage with the world and to understand other cultures.’

This year saw a record number of students trying to get a university place ahead of next year’s tuition fee hike – and more students than ever before were disappointed.

Mr Willetts says: ‘University is not an absolute right. There are people who apply and don’t get a place. But in the modern world, more and more people aspire to go to university. I believe the higher educational experience can be transformational.’

A LIFE IN POLITICS

Once nicknamed Two Brains because of his powerful intellect, David Willetts is widely considered to be one of the smartest men in his party.

The direct grant grammar-school educated Conservative - who made a speech in 2007 defending his party’s policy of not reintroducing grammar schools - has been the member of parliament for Havant since 1992.

But his career in politics started several years earlier, at the age of 26 when he took charge of the treasury monetary policy division before moving to Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit at 28. Aged 31, he took over the Centre for Policy Studies, one of Britain’s leading think tanks.

Mr Willetts has previously served as the shadow secretary of state for education and skills, for innovation, universities and skills, for work and pensions (he has carved out a reputation as an expert on pensions and benefits) and for trade and industry.

In May 2010, he was appointed minister for universities and science in the coalition government and works in a department headed up by the Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable.

Mr Willetts, who read philosophy, politics and economics at Christ Church, Oxford, has also written several books, including most recently one called The Pinch about how ‘baby boomers’ took their children’s future – and how they can give it back.