End ‘state of denial’ and create new universities, Willetts urges

Tory ex-minister criticises ‘policy-Whitehall-Westminster establishment’ for failure to meet ‘high responsibility’ to plan for new universities

December 11, 2021

The “policy-Whitehall-Westminster establishment” focus on stopping higher education expansion is a “state of denial”, preventing government planning for growth when it should take the creation of new universities as a “high responsibility”, according to former Conservative minister Lord Willetts.

The former universities and science minister delivered a critique of many Tory colleagues’ increasingly hostile view of expanded higher education when he spoke at the launch of a report on the university workforce co-authored by Baroness Wolf, who is skills and workforce policy adviser in the Number 10 Policy Unit and was a panel member on the Augar review of post-18 education.

Her report, co-authored with UCL’s Andrew Jenkins and published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, links rapid expansion in non-academic staff numbers, particularly managers, to the rapid growth of universities, arguing that “our huge modern universities are indeed, and inevitably, bureaucratic”.

Speaking at an event to discuss the report at King’s, Lord Willetts said he was concerned by the “policy-Whitehall-Westminster establishment” focus “on this idea there’s too many people going to university, which I don’t agree with”.

It was a “simple empirical observation” that the trend across nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was for expansion in higher education participation, he added.

Lord Willetts noted trends towards increased international recruitment, a demographic bulge bringing increased numbers of young people, and greater desire to go to university among those young people.

“If we do nothing, if we keep on thinking we can somehow stop all this happening, that we have some ingenious device, then we fail to plan for growth and what happens is individual universities get bigger and bigger,” he said.

“Much more rational and I think a response to [Baroness Wolf’s] analysis would be to say, ‘If this is a growth sector then we need to have another moment like the Robbins moment when we plan for some new universities’.

“I personally think planning for new universities, given the obvious future trend for growth, is a high responsibility on government. And every year when we’re in a state of denial…[and] ignore the manifestly obvious trend driving behaviour is an opportunity missed.”

In a recent paper for the Higher Education Policy Institute on how to boost higher education while cutting public spending, Lord Willetts called for the government to increase graduates’ loan repayment rates, but also to create new institutions.

The universities sometimes seen as “bad” by critics of expansion “are very useful indeed in vocational training and applied research”, he said then. “They are anchor institutions boosting local economies across England – in Bolton, Bradford, and Sunderland as well as Oxford and Cambridge. New universities should be created in towns from Blackpool to Chatham.”


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (2)

Usually, Lord Willetts is someone who speaks sense but not this time. We do not need more universities if these meet my definition of such an institution. We may need more capacity to impart high-level skills but that does not mean universities. This seems to be at the heart of the problem, to me the definition of "university" now seems too wide and what we are really after is a replacement for the polytechnics. The problem with the current system is that is slowly destroying the most established universities by choking them with an increasing bureaucracy. Some of us (myself included) left commercial organisations whose aim was to cover their backs rather than look after clients or staff for the HE sector. For many years, the difference was palpable but now it feels smaller.
I agree fully with the above comments. The word "universities" has become misleading as this "umbrella" word is unhelpful in describing a very varied sector that ranges from Oxford and Cambridge , through the Open University to local Further Education Colleges offering undergraduate degrees. The public have become confused and the diversity of UK Universities makes a debate about whether we should have more or fewer universities pointless. I believe we need only a few more Community Universities, around 10, to take part in a trial. These universities would be for basic and honours, undergraduate degrees with no more than 50 subject options. The objective would be to provide education and skills training in a deprived community / disadvantaged area as part of a levelling up project.