'Two Brains' is one of us

Coalition policies deserve opprobrium - a minister cut from the same cloth as the academy does not, says Wes Streeting

June 9, 2011

Poor old David Willetts: in the space of a year he's gone from hero to zero. Once the darling of the higher education conference circuit, he was applauded by vice-chancellors and student leaders alike for his "Two Brains" and wise instincts. Now he finds himself facing votes of no confidence from Oxbridge dons and pilloried in the tabloids and broadsheets. We might ask: what has happened to this once-celebrated intellectual of the Conservative front bench? But the sector would do better to ask itself why it has chosen to take leave of its senses by taking aim at someone who is, essentially, one of its own.

The government's higher education policy is a shambles. Putting to one side the merits or otherwise of hiking tuition fees to £9,000 a year, combining an increase in the cap with an 80 per cent cut to the teaching budget and expecting universities to do anything other than race to the top was foolish. Designing a system of loans and repayments that will increase the cost to the Treasury in the long term, while justifying it as an austerity measure, is a scheme worthy of Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby. And while our competitors are increasing investment in higher education and research, the UK is cutting back, thus risking its position on the global stage.

Bad policymaking is not confined to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills: ever the enemy of UK HE plc, the Home Office struck again this year in spectacular style, ensuring that its botched visa policy appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world. It sent a message to key markets that the UK was closed to international students while our competitors rubbed their hands with glee.

Against this backdrop, who could express confidence in the policies of Her Majesty's Government?

However, personalising a campaign against the coalition's pratfall approach to higher education is counterproductive and may prove to be ultimately self-defeating.

Willetts is a prisoner of a Treasury that is cutting back at a pace and on a scale that gives few ministers room for creativity and innovation. Those crying "no confidence" should ask who they would rather have in his place.

Of course, any replacement would soon find themselves in the same unenviable position. At least in Willetts universities have someone who understands the sector and takes the time and trouble to listen and engage with the many - and often competing - voices seeking to influence its direction.

There is also a perverse irony about one of Willetts' perceived weaknesses as a minister and the origin of the campaign being waged against him: he thinks too much like an academic and not enough like a politician.

Perhaps few politicians would have got themselves into such a mess as Willetts did with his idea of facilitating the expansion of student numbers by allowing charities and businesses to buy additional places at elite universities for students from under-represented backgrounds. But the public policy debate in the UK suffers from a lack of politicians willing to express complex arguments about complex questions. If the academy can't appreciate ministers who think, what hope is there for higher-quality political discourse?

With a higher education White Paper on the way, an inevitable debate about student numbers, the likelihood of further spending cuts and the prospect of some universities going to the wall, having a minister for universities famed for his intellect would seem to me to be a Good Thing.

I should declare for the sake of transparency that Willetts has been a supporter of the Helena Kennedy Foundation for some years. For the sake of completeness, I should also add that outside my professional role I am a Labour councillor, so defending Tory ministers comes somewhat counterintuitively.

But the personal campaign against Willetts is foolhardy: he is one of our own. Oxbridge dons would be wise to remember that before personalising a legitimate campaign against the policies of the coalition government.

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