Leader: Is he our man in a pinch?

David Willetts has the intellect to deal with his universities and science briefs. How that will feed into policy is as yet unknown

May 20, 2010

In the film The Man with Two Brains, the protagonist Dr Michael Hfuhruhurr is asked: "Were you interested in science as a child?" He replies: "I don't know if I was interested so much in the science as I was in the slime that goes along with it."

And it is the slime that should interest the academy's very own man with two brains, David Willetts, who fittingly gets two ministerial hats: a new science one and the more familiar universities one. For it is the less sexy substance of higher education - infrastructure, funding - that demands serious ministerial attention. It was sensible to join the two, he says, "because a lot of science takes place in our universities. We thought it made a lot of sense."

Although the scientific brief is a fresh one for him, he has already shown a keen understanding of the research community with his promise in opposition to delay the research excellence framework for up to two years to allow for a review of the plans to measure the social and economic impact of research.

In opposition, Mr Willetts made no bones about his disapproval of the decision to allow universities to be subsumed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, resolutely shadowing the defunct Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Although Mr Willetts rules out any immediate (and costly) move to the newly rebadged Department for Education, Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove said before the election that the Tories would restore the link between universities and schools by giving academe responsibility for maintaining A-level standards.

It was both expected and a surprise that Mr Willetts should get the job: expected because he was well liked and well respected in opposition; a surprise because all the pre-election chatter was that he would not get the job if the Tories came to power.

The indications for the future are good. Mr Willetts is thoughtful and intelligent, an intellectual who has published widely. And if his appointment has generally been welcomed, he for his part has embraced the academy. In a speech to Universities UK three years ago, he said: "In the poetic words of my colleague Boris Johnson, the Conservative vision for the future of Britain's universities is that they should become the 'Athens of the Global Economy'. They should become the place any intelligent person might think of going for a civilised and valuable education - just as people across the ancient world would have travelled to Athens to soak up the wisdom of the Greek philosophers and mathematicians."

His lofty words bode well, although there are troublesome issues ahead, particularly the Tories' seemingly indiscriminate affection for the private sector, and he does not rule out its playing a part in providing the extra 10,000 places for 2010-11 pledged by the party before the election.

In his years as shadow, it was not only his two brains but his two ears that Mr Willetts put to good use. He won praise for his willingness to listen. This week he signalled that he would take a collegial approach: "It is not the purpose of this job to impose things on scientists and people in universities. It is to distil the wisdom of people I meet in the research and science community. I want to learn from and work with the sector." The sector, which has as yet had few hints of what policies he may have in store, will be hoping that he is sincere.


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