Time to reflect on reforms

David Willetts’ controversial policies divided opinion but the former minister won respect in a role that matched his talents

July 17, 2014

What’s David Cameron’s greatest political fear? Being required to press the red button? Spotting Boris Johnson lurking behind Number 10’s bike sheds? Ed Miliband?

The answer, apparently, is none of the above. What strikes fear into the prime minister’s heart more than anything else is “hearing that David Willetts is about to make a wide-ranging speech”.

It’s a joke that stems from the now infamous speech made by Willetts when he was shadow education minister, in which he suggested that grammar schools were not the engines of social mobility that many in the Conservative Party liked to believe.

In the fallout from that particular foray off message he was “demoted” to the higher education brief, adding science when the coalition came to power in 2010.

He managed to protect both student numbers and the unit of resource, something that previous Conservative governments had failed to do

But Cameron’s joke also speaks volumes about Willetts’ style of politics: his tendency (and ability) to range widely, to engage with any debate that interests him, and – perhaps – his inability or unwillingness to play the political game to maximum advantage.

Willetts, who quit as universities minister this week and who plans to leave Parliament next year, is known to have coveted higher office, and it is likely he would have been shadow chancellor had David Davis – the horse he backed – won the Tory leadership in 2005.

Yet in universities and science he found a brief that matched his talents, and one that needed a serious thinker as the government demanded wholesale reform.

The scale of that reform and the implications for students, academics, universities and society have been enormous, and while Willetts has been admired for his personal qualities, many regard his policies as dysfunctional and toxic.

To his critics he will be remembered as the architect of a consumerist, utilitarian approach to higher education ushered in by the trebling of tuition fees and promotion of private providers. His exclusion from Cameron’s inner circle may also be partly to blame for the failure of his department to effectively combat the Home Office’s assault on overseas students.

But others would argue that he managed to protect both student numbers and the unit of resource, something that previous Conservative governments had failed to do.

Ken Clarke, another long-serving minister who left government this week, has said that the secret to ministerial success is “having a clear idea of what you want to deliver, and sticking to it”. Willetts did this, and might argue that the ends justified the means.

We will see how history judges him on that score, and may not need to wait long if the system he has set up, with its soaring costs, is dismantled after the next general election.

What is undeniable is that Willetts has been a minister committed to a collegial approach, to university autonomy and to protecting funding for both universities and research.

In fact, he is accused by some of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, having spent too much time with vice-chancellors (after resigning, he is said to have bounded down the corridor saying: “I’m free!” – although he may have been referring to the strictures of ministerial life rather than the clutches of v-cs).

Universities will hope for a similar relationship with his successor, Greg Clark: close, but not at the expense of autonomy.


Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Reader in Politics and Policy

St Marys University, Twickenham



Professor of Anthropology

Maynooth University

Preceptor in Statistics

Harvard University

Postdoctoral Fellowship in Electrochemistry

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu
See all jobs

Most Commented

Doctoral study can seem like a 24-7 endeavour, but don't ignore these other opportunities, advise Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman

Matthew Brazier illustration (9 February 2017)

How do you defeat Nazis and liars? Focus on the people in earshot, says eminent Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt

Improvement, performance, rankings, success

Phil Baty sets out why the World University Rankings are here to stay – and why that's a good thing

Laurel and Hardy sawing a plank of wood

Working with other academics can be tricky so follow some key rules, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

Warwick vice-chancellor Stuart Croft on why his university reluctantly joined the ‘flawed’ teaching excellence framework