Man with two brains' vision for life under Cameron

Teaching is top of David Willetts' agenda for a Tory-ruled academy. Melanie Newman reports

October 1, 2009

Hard policy on higher education from the Conservative Party is in short supply.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, however, David Willetts, the Shadow Universities Secretary, indicated that the sector could be asked to take teaching more seriously and become more diverse if the Tories win next year's general election.

He added that failing institutions may face a tougher time under a Tory government.

Speaking in advance of next week's Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Mr Willetts urged vice-chancellors to put teaching quality "at the top of the agenda".

Earlier this year, he helped to broker a resolution to a "student revolt" at the University of Bristol, when hundreds of students accused the institution of failing to improve teaching standards after tuition fees were introduced.

"At one point, the university said that there were no commitments made when top-up fees came in that the money should go into teaching," he recalled.

"But (former education secretaries) Charles Clarke and Alan Johnson clearly said at the time that the money would feed back into better-quality teaching, so it was wrong there."

Mr Willetts has been saying for some time that if universities want permission to charge higher fees, they must first demonstrate that initial fees have improved the student experience.

"Many universities are not prepared for the consumer pressure they would face if fees were to increase," he said.

"The National Union of Students is not fomenting Marxist rebellion - you are much more likely to hear members talking about how long it takes to get their work back from their tutors," the Shadow minister added.

Cutting-edge scholarship

Mr Willetts was also keen to stress that high-quality teaching is possible even when there is no funding for research.

"Academics have a tendency to think that there's nothing in between teaching and research, when in fact there's scholarship, which is about being at the cutting edge of your discipline. This is what you get at a US liberal-arts college," he said.

But this might not mean getting research council grants or even assessment money, he added.

Cautioning universities against sequestering their "star" academics for research, he suggested that high-profile professors could be used to improve the student experience.

"Some students go to university hoping and expecting to have some contact with the leading professors who have made the institution's reputation - the ones you hear on the television and radio.

"If those professors are inaccessible, they may feel short-changed."

Mr Willetts said that universities could benefit by adopting the US model, under which prominent professors deliver opening lectures that set out the framework for courses.

He also said that he would like the sector to think more creatively about its future shape.

"We need to think about how diverse British higher education can become. If an institution has more than 4,000 students, what else does it need to do to become a university - does it need a physical library, for instance, or would a virtual one suffice?

"At what point would BPP College be in a position to call itself a university? The sector is behind in thinking about it all."

Fees review

The Government is committed to beginning a review of the effects of the introduction of variable tuition fees by 2010, but has not yet clarified its scope.

Mr Willetts said: "It should be a broad assessment of the future challenges facing universities, such as foreign competition, models of pedagogy and breaking free from the model that focuses on 18-year-olds."

And he warned that universities should not expect to be bailed out by mergers if they develop financial problems under a Conservative government.

He added: "If universities get into difficulty - and I think some of them are facing pressure - what happens if there are offers of support from ... bodies that are outside the conventional UK institutional mix?

"This is an area where the current regime is very unclear, partly because different universities have different legal status. We need clearer rules about who steps in under what circumstances."

Too clever by half?

Whether Mr Willetts will be in a position to decide on such issues should the Conservatives win next year's general election is a matter of debate.

Sources close to the party say that universities would move into an education department led by Michael Gove, MP for Surrey Heath and Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, with science and research remaining under a department for business.

However, Mr Willetts' chief of staff, Nicholas Hillman, said it is far too early to say.

"We are not convinced that universities sit naturally within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills," he said. "On the other hand, while we recognise that many people would like the old education department to be recreated ... that is not a simple task."

While Mr Willetts insists he is still the "Shadow Secretary of State for Universities and Skills", despite the Government's departmental restructuring in June, the official Tory website describes him as "Shadow Minister for Universities and Skills".

One senior academic, who asked to remain anonymous, is not convinced that a Conservative Cabinet will include the man nicknamed "Two Brains".

"David Willetts has been the 'nearly man' of Conservative politics for about 20 years," he said.

"He's not got anything like the profile you would expect after all that."

Part of the problem, he suggested, is that the Birmingham-bred politician is perceived by his own party to be "too clever by half", reflecting an "innate Tory suspicion of free-thinking intellectuals".

When dealing with academics, however, this is clearly more of an asset than a liability.

"He commands a good deal of respect in the sector," one vice-chancellor said.

"He is one of those frontbench politicians who listens and then thinks about what he hears. He rarely makes formulaic utterances, which makes it much easier to engage with him.

"And he undoubtedly has the intellectual and analytical qualities that one seeks - but doesn't always find - in a secretary of state."

But another vice-chancellor, also speaking anonymously, questioned whether Mr Willetts had the "hard edge needed to make things happen in politics".

He said that despite "all the debacles" of recent years, such as the decision to stop funding equivalent or lower-level qualifications and the "abandonment by stealth" of the 50 per cent target for university participation, Mr Willetts had "failed to land any knockout blows, let alone killer punches".

"But he has one thing that the Cameron team needs: experience of government," he added.

"In the end, that may be his biggest asset."

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