Measured, but found wanting?

David Willetts’ finely balanced aims for higher education are too often belied by the impact of his government’s policies

January 2, 2014

There’s a line in the sorry tale told by a Canadian academic in this week’s Times Higher Education about the UK government “speaking out of both sides of its mouth”.

She is referring to its insistence that it wants to nurture higher education as a global trump card while simultaneously engaging in the immigration-bashing that hits overseas staff and students.

It’s clear that the government has a split personality on this issue, with the Home Office openly at war with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – but is it the only example of a contradictory approach to higher education?

While David Willetts has been a staunch defender of higher education as an international export, there is a feeling among some that the universities minister has said one thing and done another in the course of his reforms.

Willetts’ critics would say it’s not enough to proclaim that you champion education as a public good if your policies encourage a different view

His willingness to engage with argument and to see shades of grey has won him respect, and he has always said the right things about the public value of higher education.

But, critics would say, it’s not enough to proclaim that you are a champion of education as a public good if your policies encourage a different view.

So is it fair to cast the architect of the higher education market as a smiling assassin?

Writing in this week’s THE, Willetts states that he has tried to emulate Lionel Robbins, author of the eponymous report that led to the expansion of higher education 50 years ago, who “achieved a perfect equipoise between utilitarian arguments [for going to university] and confident appeals to the underlying value of study”.

Robbins “was not embarrassed about acknowledging the utility of higher education”, he writes, “but at the same time he exuded a fundamental belief in its broad value”.

The article was commissioned to allow the universities minister to set out the arguments he would have made in the “lost” chapter of the higher education White Paper, which was to have addressed the issue of “public good”.

Whether it convinces depends, perhaps, on whether you see the latest policy bombshell – the lifting of the student numbers cap – as a release from state shackles or the unleashing of yet stronger market forces that will further undermine the pure purpose of higher education (the waters are muddied further by the absence of a credible funding plan).

It also depends on what you think the impact has been of shifting so much of the funding burden from the state to the student.

In our opinions pages this week, Roger Brown, emeritus professor of higher education, argues that to preserve both the public and private benefits, “tuition fees need to continue to be counterbalanced with block grants to universities, regardless of their place in the perceived pecking order”.

Can the government really claim to put equal value on the public and private benefits having switched the financial load so firmly to the individual?

Willetts is right that a degree, whether in physics or philosophy, has wide benefits.

His challenge is to ensure that his determination to be seen as a pragmatic “believer” translates into policy that feeds both sides of the equation, and preserves a higher education system that is as balanced as the argument he makes.

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