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 (2)

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.
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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