Trust breakdown: Willetts’ sales drive is car-crash politics

The universities minister has ruined his relationship with the sector, Simon Szreter argues, and it will take more than speeches to fix it

March 7, 2011

While business secretary Vince Cable’s silence on the subject is deafening, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has become hyperactive in his efforts to sell his great project to privatise British higher education in a series of speeches at the University of Nottingham, Universities UK, the British Academy and the University of Cambridge.

Why? Because of trust. The imposition upon students, parents and lecturers of a threefold fees hike, for which there was absolutely no pre-announced electoral mandate – quite the reverse in the case of Willetts’ coalition partners – has led to a catastrophic breakdown of trust.

So when Willetts proclaims, “We will be robust in protecting boundaries around academic integrity and freedom,” does this mean anything from this man and this party? When he states that “consumerism should not jeopardise the relationship between teacher and student”, this robs us of any trust in his apparent judgement. Has he any understanding of the compromised pedagogic relationship in the US university system, which he now seeks to emulate in the UK?

A beneficiary of the free state education system he now wishes to consign to history, Willetts is clearly aware that the opposition to his plans represented by the student protests has not gone away. So he has gone on the stump in a sales drive. Talking to the British Academy, he invoked the value of “open debate”, but was referring only to the politically anodyne topic of peer review.

By contrast, there has been no open debate and indeed no consultation on the key ideological surprise of coalition policy, ramrodded through Parliament on 9 December: the removal of 80 per cent of public funding for university teaching. This was not part of the Browne Review consultation, and leaves the younger generation – at least those whose parents are not among the oligarchy of 60-odd financiers who fund the Conservative Party in return for access to David Cameron and his Cabinet of millionaires – to carry hefty loans into their young lives, a formidable obstacle to embarking on both marriage and homeownership.

This is not, you would have thought, a natural Tory policy, nor one that appears to have any consistency with the theme of Willetts’ book, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back (2010). Here, we have the boomers who caused the hole in our public finances, the Tories’ millionaire friends, keeping their bonuses while other people’s children pay for it all.

In his speech at the Lord Dearing Memorial Conference at Nottingham, Willetts cited research “optimistically” showing how state school students who have managed to gain entry to elite universities overtake those from private schools. But this is merely evidence of the systemic damage to state school students’ capacity to compete fairly for entry at age 18, wreaked by the Thatcher/Major regime in which Willetts served, by funding tax cuts for those rich enough to afford private schooling.

State schools were deliberately starved of cash for two decades. Private pupils already enjoyed 50 per cent more teachers per pupil in 1979, reaching 100 per cent more by 1997, an advantage they have retained. So we have nice Willetts, the man of noble words, and nasty Willetts, the man of dastardly deeds. Perhaps there are indeed two brains at work here, or perhaps merely two faces? Does Willetts trust himself, I begin to wonder?

Two previous major reviews of higher education, the 1963 Robbins report and the 1997 Dearing report, each ran to hundreds of pages, recording a careful sifting of extensive international evidence and wide consultation. It is a shock to pick up Browne and realise the government is seeking radical change on the basis of a sub-60-page pamphlet that is almost entirely lacking in evidence.

The UK higher education system has risen to be one of the best in the world, punching way above its weight with 14 of the world’s top 100 universities, according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2010-11. It attracts proportionately more international students than the US or Germany. These successes are built on five decades of sound public funding; a record of achievement that demonstrates the wisdom of ignoring Dearing’s wish to force large loans on students, which is precisely the present policy.

Willetts happily describes himself as a free marketeer. His brand of evidence-free ideological policymaking threatens to pull down in five short years the achievements of two generations. Now that we know the coalition’s fees plans will provide no savings in this Parliament, the argument that the urgency of dealing with the deficit precludes a full public inquiry is invalidated. As 681 scholars petitioned last week, there must now be such an inquiry to prevent this car crash.

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