David Willetts: new universities ‘converge on old models’

Former universities minister says institutions do not always succeed in maintaining founding diversity as he predicts ‘growth agenda’ will win in the UK

June 28, 2019
David Willetts

Young universities tend to evolve to mirror traditional higher education institutions even in cases where they are built to foster diversity, a former universities minister has warned, while predicting that England will further expand its university sector in the near future.

Lord Willetts, executive chair of the Resolution Foundation, said he believed that the “growth of participation in higher education is a good thing” for individuals and the economy more broadly, but noted that “the policy question is where this growth happens”.

“There are two options. One option is existing universities get bigger. The other option is new universities are created,” he told the Times Higher Education Young Universities Summit during a panel on opportunities for growth in higher education.

In the 1960s, France expanded existing universities, but the UK took the other approach of creating new institutions in response to the Robbins report, Lord Willetts highlighted.

The report argued, in Lord Willetts’ words, that “if you want to do something different in the higher education context, creating a new university is probably an easier route than trying to change customs and practices in an existing institution. Second, if you create new universities and you don’t have a massive influx of extra students into your existing universities, the character of your existing universities is less threatened.”

However, Lord Willetts, who was minister for universities and science from 2010 to 2014, questioned whether young universities “can hold that diversity”. While the University of Sussex and Keele University were founded on a “vision of a liberal arts course delivered over four years”, that model had “disappeared within 20 years”, he claimed.

“Funding pressures and the pressures of rankings and public prestige can lead even new, young universities to converge on old models – even if you’re initially created with an idea of being different,” he said.

On the current political agenda for universities, Lord Willetts said that the contrasts between the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) were “very vivid”.

While the DfE argued that too many people were going to university and that the economic returns of higher education were falling, Beis was advocating for “a growth agenda”, Lord Willetts said – a challenging scenario at a time when the Conservative leadership was being contested.

“The government’s official objective, which I hope Boris [Johnson] repeats and I expect he would, is to go from 1.7 per cent of GDP going on research and development to 2.4 per cent…Given that a lot of British R&D happens in universities, it is very hard to see how you get from 1.7 to 2.4 without more universities doing more things,” he said.

“We have one department with its foot on the brake and one department with its foot on the accelerator.”

Lord Willetts’ prediction was that “the foot on the accelerator will win. If you look at what the narrative is for global Britain in a post-Brexit world, one would expect technology, innovation and research to be a key part of it.”

During the same panel, Alison Jones, deputy vice-chancellor of health and communities at the University of Wollongong, highlighted the high dropout rates of students as an area of concern, but Lord Willetts said that “if anything, English dropout rates are too low” and reflect “risk-averse recruitment”.

“I think we have to accept that there will be some people who drop out,” he said, adding that the UK must come up with ways to provide evidence of the “distance [students] have been able to travel” even if they did not complete degrees.


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