Leader: Since when is debate a bad thing?

David Willetts is getting flak for voicing controversial policy ideas. But universities could suffer too if debate is stifled

May 19, 2011

It is often said that we get the politicians we deserve. In the case of David Willetts, the universities and science minister, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we seem to have one who perhaps we do not deserve or, at the very least, do not always appreciate.

There is no doubt that the government's higher education policy is in disarray. The gulf between the two coalition parties on the academy has been so wide at times that everything that has emanated from Whitehall has been either riddled with compromise or floated to the public inchoate in a frustrated and frustrating attempt to gain acceptance. The sums still don't add up, and the books have yet to balance. But whatever the problems, and whoever is to blame, a solution is urgently required because a White Paper is just around the corner.

Whether or not one agrees with Mr Willetts' politics or policies thus far, it is hard not to be impressed by both his intellect and his desire to sow ideas and propagate discussion. This open approach has landed him in trouble, famously over grammar schools, where he made the heretical yet entirely correct point that they were monopolised by the middle classes, and more recently over his observations - note, not views - on feminism and social mobility.

It is often hard to escape the distinct whiff of anti-intellectualism that seems to follow him around. Mr Willetts muses, and the unthinking mob confuses. His moniker of "Two Brains" is constantly used to denigrate him and his thinking as remote and other-worldly.

In the past week or so he has, to his credit, attempted to find a way out of the mess in which he and the government have found themselves over tuition fees.

One of his ideas was to allow universities to circumvent quotas on student numbers by recruiting unlimited numbers of home undergraduates who are able to fund their tuition fees up front. Another suggestion was that universities might have to discount their rates during the clearing process if they failed to attract enough applicants. But before any exploration of these proposals could take place, they were closed down and dismissed out of hand by the national media and by organisations in the sector that, frankly, should know better.

We are all acutely aware that politicians do not have all the answers, so why are we so hostile to one who attempts to enlist rational debate to find solutions? Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, speaks for many when he says: "It is a depressing reflection of the state of politics and policymaking that a minister cannot think out loud in this way."

The vehemence and speed with which his proposals were shot down bode ill for Mr Willetts politically. But more worryingly, they forebode a potential disaster for universities. Without a free, wide-ranging and thorough debate and exploration of possible solutions to the challenges facing higher education, there is a danger that the sector will be lumbered with a White Paper almost devoid of input from those it affects most.

We can carp, we can whine - but we are where we are. That may well be up shit creek, but it is in the academy's own interests to help Mr Willetts find the requisite paddle.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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