David Willetts quits as universities minister

Departure announced as Prime Minister carries out cabinet reshuffle

July 14, 2014

David Willetts has resigned as minister for universities and science as David Cameron carries out a major cabinet reshufffle that has also seen Michael Gove lose his job as education secretary.

The news follows speculation on a number of previous occasions that Mr Willetts was at risk of losing the universities brief, and comes as part of a wider change in government with a number of long-serving ministers losing their jobs.

It was announced on 15 July that he is to be replaced by Greg Clark, MP for Tunbridge Wells, who will also hold the post of minister of state at the Cabinet Office.

Mr Willetts, who has overseen four years of major reform in higher education and was also shadow universities minister before 2010, has announced that he intends to leave Parliament next year.

Figures from the UK higher education sector have been reacting to the news.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of universities, said Mr Willetts was “strong advocate of higher education, science and the merits of international students and waged a long battle in the Cabinet on their behalf”.

“What is not so widely known is that he won the argument that international students should be taken out of the migration numbers only to have the Cabinet agreement scuppered by the Home Office, which announced something completely different.

“It is unusual for ministers tasked with introducing highly controversial reforms to be remembered fondly but David Willetts ticked the boxes in terms of integrity, and as a result won respect even among those who were strongly opposed to the government’s policies.”

Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, said he had been “an outstanding science minister, respected not only in the UK but throughout the world”.

“He has kept science centre stage in the Cabinet and has helped position science at the forefront of UK industrial strategy and economic recovery. His commitment, energy and pure enthusiasm for science will be sorely missed.”

On Twitter, Mark Pegg, former chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, described the departing minister as a “very rare example of a minister who actually cared what happened to his brief and not just his career”.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former special adviser to Mr Willetts, said it was “nice to see plaudits” on the social network for his former employer, “including from people who disagree with him”, adding “he was an inspiring boss”.

However, Rachel Wenstone, former vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students, tweeted that Mr Willetts would be remembered for “his inability to challenge [home secretary Theresa] May on net migration”, and “incompetent funding decisions”.

Aaron Porter, who was president of the NUS when tuition fees were increased to £9,000, tweeted that Mr Willetts would be remembered for a “big error” regarding the resource accounting and budgeting (RAB) charge – the estimated portion of loans that will never be repaid by graduates, which has increased to a level that could soon eclipse the expected financial benefits of the fee increase. He added that the former minister was a “decent man”, but that his reforms “will need correcting in 2015”.

Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, said Mr Willetts’ biggest legacy would “always be the increase in fees and the funding system that underpins it” and whether it turns out to be sustainable.

“But he deserves credit for a wide range of things: protecting the science budget - even if only in flat cash terms - and for persuading George Osborne and the Treasury that they should expand HE numbers and get rid of number controls,” he said.

“At GuildHE we will always be especially grateful for his decision that enabled a number of small and specialist institutions to gain university title.”

University leaders also took to social media to pay tribute to the outgoing minister. Craig Calhoun, director of the London School of Economics, said Mr Willetts’ departure was “a loss as UK’s universities and science minister”, describing him as “a thoughtful leader whether one agreed with all his policies or not”, while Sir Richard J. Evans, president of Wolfson College, Cambridge, said he was “sorry David Willetts is leaving his post”. “I hope his replacement also values universities,” he tweeted.

Patrick McGhee, former vice-chancellor of the University of East London, tweeted that the fees reforms had “been a disaster, but [Mr Willetts] genuinely believed in a diverse sector, students, mobility and the importance of teaching”.

“My worry is that a new HE minister will have a remit to keep the cost of HE via loans down. This could be bad news for the post-92 sector,” Professor McGhee said.

David Willetts won acclaim from many in the science community during his four years as minister.

He won a cash ring-fence for the science budget – although many have raised concerns at how inflation is now eroding this settlement – and helped to boost long-term investments in science capital after initial cuts.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, expressed gratitude at his “tireless work” and for “proving himself a progressive force in the argument for open access to research”.

“His common sense and clear commitment to research and higher education has been a breath of fresh air. He will be sadly missed across government,” he said.

Sir Colin Blakemore, professor of neuroscience and philosophy at the University of London, added that the scientific community owed Mr Willetts “a huge debt”.

“Despite the fact that he’s not a scientist, he went native. His personal affection and enthusiasm for science have been crucially important in sustaining the government’s commitment to science through challenging times,” he said.

Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association, said that he is “one of the UK’s sharpest and most talented politicians” and that “you’d be hard-pressed to find many in our sector who have a bad word to say about him”.

One of Mr Willetts’ more controversial policy decisions was to channel £600 million of investment into selected innovations, known as his eight great technologies.

Many criticised the move for “picking winners” by concentrating research and development funding in specific fields while other promising technologies missed out.

But Iain Gray, chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board, said that the eight great technologies policy has “helped mobilise the joint efforts of universities and business working together”.

Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said of Mr Willetts: “He was liked and respected throughout the sector for ‘getting it’, whether each policy was welcomed or not.

“He has set the scene for his successor to capitalise on the high level political support for science he engendered by securing substantial long-term investment.”

Holly Else

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Reader's comments (3)

It is a disappointment to see David Willetts step down at this time. He has gone out of his way to defend universities, to develop new initiatives, to challenge colleagues who introduced barriers, to promote international and transnational HE and to develop a more diverse but high quality sector. He was one of those rare ministers who worked hard to understand the complexities of both his universities brief and his further brief in science. At this stage his successor has not been announced, though one of the expect favourites has been appointed to a cabinet role. It is to be hoped that the new appointment will be as far sighted as David and will seek to gain an early understanding of the increasingly challenged sector. Finally, it has been announced that David is stepping down from political life. Nonetheless, it is to be hoped that he continues to contribute to the great and current policy debates.
The student loans issue is not an issue anymore. It is a matter of principle for myself which I choose to pursue on behalf of the community. About 10000 students, vulnerable against the UK government have chosen to resign themselves after the first few months. Those that could sort out their issue (about 2500), did so and are now more frightened then ever to speak out. Those that couldn't simply gave up on education (the rest). For all of them and for the Romanian community, this has felt like a massive cynical act of simply dismissing the Romanians from social life, part of a growing trend of xenophobia that is determining current British politics. The following people can corroborate the evidence given below (and many more for that matter) 07919 323931/ 07578 677434 Daniel Corradi Stevens formerly NUS International Officer 07866695010 Collette NUS pressoffice@nus.org.uk 07975621792 Oana Elena Manolache UKCBC 07718 068138 Liliana Gabor Icon College 07770 856071 Cezar Garabetanu, St Patrick Two main groups of action for the student rights, besides the NUS https://www.facebook.com/groups/beststoriesbulrom/ https://www.facebook.com/groups/234561846726717/  which we eventually evolved into the European Students Union The most pressing issues the Romanian community has are stemming from poverty, which drives the following kind of discriminatory speech from Tory leadership seen here in the media (all as recent as less than a month). http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10949062/Tory-plan-to-cap-EU-migration.html?utm_medium=referral&utm_source=t.co Cameron in the context of "existing EU members, such as Romania and Bulgaria, as well as new countries joining in future, would be included in the restrictions on migrant numbers" http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/iain-duncan-smith-says-big-issue-magazine-is-helping-uk-benefit-tourists-9492515.html "Iain Duncan Smith has criticised the Big Issue magazine saying that it provides a way for immigrants from eastern Europe to claim benefits in Britain." http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/10900141/Loans-to-foreign-students-blocked.html Davin Willetts in the context of "Large numbers of students from mainland Europe face being blocked from taking out loans at UK taxpayers’ expense after it emerged that thousands of Bulgarians and Romanians attempted to wrongly claim more than £65?million of public money." This sort of speech has been going on for months now, started by UKIP and incorporated by the Tories as a 2015 campaign staple (a "wedge strategy" designed by Lynton Crosby), where Romanians are associated with key words such as floods, poverty, thievery, etc. Now it has toned down, after Mr Farage was branded a "racist" , but it still emerges in the media by association. At some point it was really shocking http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/458044/Benefits-encourage-migrants-to-have-more-children-than-they-would-back-home   http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2551531/Romanian-women-highest-fertility-rate-EU-experts-say-Britains-support-children-acts-draw.html Specifically on the student issue http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/10461099/Student-loans-to-Bulgarians-and-Romanians-frozen.html Mr Willetts started the issue by specifically naming public enemy number 1 "We identified that there had been a significant increase in the number of Bulgarian and Romanian students applying for full student support in England this year." under "suspicious" circumstances. I used to work as a policy analyst for Lloyds Bank, so I recognised both the abuse and the discriminatory nature of the speech. I was also called at one of the colleges affected to provide assistance. Along with the students, the myRomania NGO  and a newspaper we decided to organize the community, as we only had three months before the students who were not warned, simply cut from finance (tuition and maintenance) would run out of any support they could muster (most of them relied on benevolent landlords, friends and the lucky few on part time jobs as these were full time students).  The students were treated by the government as "guilty until proven innocent", criminalized (threatened to be blacklisted), not informed of the loans cut, not informed of any rights they had for appeal (judicial review proved the salvation of many), treated as scapegoats and used as political leverage, while their lives were shattered.  The colleges did not help, intimidated by impromptu inspections by the Education Ministry, but sent out letters of immediate payment in full to the students and basically threatened the student representatives out of civic action. Romanian authorities did not help and spoke very briefly on the matter. Pressing the Ambassador on the matter resulted in my physical removal from the embassy. The business and consultancy groups that cashed in on the matter, by fraudulent practices, stood silent and are currently back in operation.  The guilt of the matter has been laid in the weakest link in the process, the students themselves, which as we know from civil and human rights law is the worst way of dealing with an issue. Blaming the victim does not work for rape or for this issue. http://www.foreignersinuk.co.uk/news-news-romanian_and_bulgarian_protest_against_political_discrimination_4803.html a petition was sent to Cameron on discrimination and one to Willetts on the student issues, but no reply ever came http://www.channel4.com/news/cleggs-vow-to-veto-eu-curbs-on-immigration  (at 1.11 min) I got in the media, but out of a 20 minutes of interview, where 19 had been on the student issue, all I managed was to show I was unemployed and poor on camera for a few seconds, which brought community disapproval upon my head http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03pml82/Question_Time_09_01_2014/  (at 42.05 min) out of desperation, I went on Question Time and raised the issue there                                  http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/romanian-and-bulgarian-students-fear-exclusion-from-uk-universities-after-being-faced-with-loan-freezes-9052230.html that inspired a young journalist to write this piece http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/romanians-and-bulgarians-pulled-off-courses-after-funding-freeze/2010523.article then another http://www.renateweber.eu/mediafiles/Letter_Reding_UK_-_EN.pdf the commotion started Mrs Weber, MEP to call for an infringement procedure against the UK http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKVJFXtLtPk&feature=youtu.be made the Libdems cry out against the political speech http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/10608292/Sketch-Ay-theres-the-Raab.html and put of the Tories from their "though on Romanians" plan until after EU elections   http://www.novinite.com/articles/159183/EC+to+Investigate+UK+Over+Suspended+Grants+to+Bulgarians,+Romanians however a reluctant EU Commission and the dying out of a small press topic, allowed for the issue to be buried and then reemerge as soon as the Tories got desperate enough. They sacrificed the students for a bit more peace. http://www.jonworth.eu/reinfeldt-merkel-cameron-and-rutte-in-a-boat-a-roundup/ there's further speculation that at the 9th of June meeting, Mr Cameron was given some leeway to act though on migration by countries with similar problems, which in effect means a bypassing of EU legislation by national governments. This would allow for the creation of a two-tier Europe (EEA and nonEEA) and the effective institutionalization of racism within Europe. Therefore, my greatest fear from eight months ago that racism against Romanians has become a prevalent side of Europe has been realized.  Thank you for your patience, Paul Suciu, policy analyst and Romanian community organizer  07557192670
David willetts suggests that universities should take over the loan scheme for undergraduates since this is will encourage them to address the employment of their students in the long run. What a great idea. I wonder if David Willetts would also endorse the suggestion that ministers should be held accountable for the consequences of their decisions long after their term in office is over.

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