Two brains has been all ears, too

David Willetts is a rare politician who thinks and listens. It would be a blow to the sector if he were replaced

July 25, 2013

If the talk of the Westminster village was accurate, David Willetts narrowly avoided being shunted out of his job as universities and science minister last week.

However, with David Cameron’s “mini-reshuffle” merely postponed until after the summer break, a change in the post might yet come in September.

If so, there is unlikely to be the cheering in university common rooms that might have been imagined a couple of years ago, and not only because – despite the unpopularity of his government’s higher education reforms – Willetts is widely seen as a minister who understands universities and academia.

It would also say something worrying about the coalition’s attitude to the university brief and, more generally, towards politicians who engage in debate and think through policy rather than setting out to grab headlines.

If a minister who has maintained respect while overseeing controversial reforms were pushed out for a younger prospect, what should we conclude?

It is already noteworthy that higher education and science do not have their own department, and that while their minister attends Cabinet, he is not a full member.

But if a credible minister, who has maintained the sector’s respect (although individuals will of course disagree) despite overseeing the most controversial reform of higher education in England for a generation, were to be pushed out to make space for the blooding of a younger prospect possibly destined for “greater” things, what should we conclude?

The suggestion is that, with Willetts having done the heavy lifting, and with higher education – and, in particular, research – having been spared the worst cuts in the spending round, the universities brief would be a good place to give a “rising star” a run-out.

But the brief is far too important to be treated as a ministerial training ground.

And for all the talk about Willetts being “too academic” to climb to the very top of the political ladder, introducing such significant reforms, maintaining the unit of resource when a trapdoor had opened beneath the public purse, and acknowledging and respecting university autonomy and academic freedom was a high-wire act that required not only insight into the sector but political skills, too.

That is not to gloss over the extraordinary turmoil that higher education has faced in the past three years – much of which has been sparked by the (often complex) detail of Willetts’ own policies, and not just the broad thrust of the reforms driven by austerity. Nor is it to ignore the damage that many believe has been done to it and its place in society.

But the Tory high command should not forget that this turmoil and anger was inevitable given the path they set towards the privatisation and marketisation of higher education by axeing direct public funding.

As far as Willetts is concerned, few ministers have been as visible a presence in the sector or as open to debate and willing to engage with criticism (including that raised weekly in Times Higher Education).

He has not got everything right or accepted every criticism or concern – far from it – but if he were to be displaced, particularly to facilitate the career of someone using higher education as a stepping stone to “higher” office, it would be a loss, all the more so at a time when real engagement and evidence-based debate is much needed in politics.

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