David Willetts has predicted that facing down a “populist but incredibly dangerous” Labour policy to lower fees to £6,000 will be the major challenge for his successor.
The former universities and science minister, who had been in charge of Tory higher education policy since being appointed shadow education secretary in 2005, stepped down from his post on 14 July ahead of the ministerial reshuffle, and will step down as MP for Havant at the next general election.
Mr Willetts oversaw the introduction of £9,000 fees – and has faced questions ever since about the sustainability of the policy.
Speaking to Times Higher Education shortly after his departure, he said: “In an age of austerity, to have a surge in the amount of cash going into teaching for universities – there is no other model, no other possible policy which could have delivered that.”
Also citing the government’s decision last year to abolish student number controls as a highlight of his time in office, he continued: “A combination of more cash plus a cultural shift to focus on the quality of the teaching experience…as of this moment, looking back at it, I feel proud of that legacy. I think it was the right thing to do for our universities.”
England’s system is “now seen around the world as a model of how to fund universities when money is tight”, Mr Willetts claimed.
Asked about regrets, he said that a fee-based system “means the substantial public element of support for universities is less visible and is less recognised”.
Do the government’s calculations about the write-offs on student loans count as a mistake, given that they will have an impact on the higher education budget?
“I don’t agree,” said Mr Willetts, who added that the recalculation of the forecast write-off every six months “is an exercise that doesn’t add much to the underlying economics of graduate repayments”.
Would private colleges and the lack of oversight over their quality and use of public funding count as another mistake? “Compared with what we had when we started, we have been rapidly enhancing our regulatory controls over them,” he insisted. “When there was evidence of fraud and abuse, such as sadly some of the so-called students from Romania and Bulgaria…we very promptly cracked down very hard.”
On tuition fees, he did not think that there needs to be a “radical shake-up” after the next election. But he added that if Labour confirmed a policy to cut fees to £6,000, it “would be a disaster for our universities”. He said it could amount to “a loss of income” as there would be questions over Labour’s ability to reinstate direct public funding “in an age of austerity”.
“The great threat to our universities is the populist but incredibly dangerous policy of cutting the fees with a gamble on an unaffordable promise to replace it with more conventional public spending. I think that’s going to be the issue for the next 12 months,” he said.
Jobseeker: what next for WIlletts?
With several top university jobs becoming available by the end of next year, might David Willetts soon become a vice-chancellor?
“I love universities, I think they are great institutions and I want to stay involved, in some way or other,” he told Times Higher Education.
But Mr Willetts, whose late father-in-law Lord Butterfield led the universities of Cambridge and Nottingham, said he was not planning to become a vice-chancellor, despite several universities including Bristol, Liverpool, Southampton and privately run Buckingham currently seeking new heads.
“We will see what plays out, but that’s not my intention. We will see what comes up,” he said.
Fluent in German, Mr Willetts had been tipped to become a European Union commissioner, but he told THE that he had been passed over despite it being something he “would have been keen to do”. He did say, however, that he was keen to write a “proper book about universities”.
“It won’t exactly be a memoir,” he said, “but given that I have been in opposition and in government working on university policy for almost a decade…I hope I’ve got one or two observations that might be worth recalling.”
Jack Grove and John Morgan