David Willetts interview: ‘What I did was in the interests of young people’

The former universities minister discusses the reforms that reshaped higher education and his first steps into academia

June 18, 2015
David Willetts
Source: Julian Anderson
David Willetts said that he would 'sometimes kick myself' that the government had not linked the earnings threshold for student loan repayments to average earnings

It takes David Willetts 10 minutes to get from the restaurant door to the table. He is stopped not once, not twice, but three times as he makes his way through the early lunchtime crowd, with diners at consecutive tables leaping to their feet to greet him.

Perhaps it’s because The Delaunay restaurant on Aldwych, where we’re meeting to discuss his years overseeing higher education, is just across the road from King’s College London, where he is now a visiting professor. Or perhaps it’s because the place is frequented by journalists and Westminster types (the latter seems more likely, unless King’s academics are particularly keen on business attire).

Either way, it’s a striking entrance by the former universities minister, whose personal affability and openness stand in juxtaposition to the divisive nature of his higher education reforms.

For all his willingness to engage in discussion and debate, Willetts can hardly be accused of courting popularity. As the architect of the £9,000 tuition fee cap, he oversaw the only austerity measure to cause riots on the streets of London. Today, he remains robust in his defence of his reforms, and is philosophical when he recalls those fraught days in November and December 2010 preceding the fees vote.

But before we get to that, rewind a few years to when Willetts was part of a Conservative opposition that was against tuition fees of any level.

It was in 1997-98, when he was briefly shadowing education, that his involvement in the fees saga started, and he recalls being “shocked” by the way in which David Blunkett, who was then Labour’s education secretary, handled Lord Dearing’s landmark report on the future of higher education.

Dearing recommended a flat-rate fee to cover about 25 per cent of the average cost of tuition – about £1,000 in 1997 – for full-time undergraduates, repayable once they started work, with means-tested grants retained as part of the system. In the event, however, the government scrapped grants and introduced means-tested fees for tuition, payable upfront, with loans for maintenance.

“You could argue that the point at which this whole debate [about university funding] went wrong was when Labour didn’t accept Dearing. They should have done…and several years were wasted,” Willetts says.

That’s all very well, but he himself voted against increasing tuition fees in 2004. “Looking back, that was a mistake,” Willetts says. So why did he do it? “I was in the shadow cabinet but not on education, so you follow the advice [you receive]. The Conservative argument then was that poor kids were going to be put off, which was an understandable concern that was subsequently proved wrong. And second, our education team had a kind of ingenious package that they said would enable you to fund universities without having to increase fees – not unlike what Labour had in 2010.

“Looking back, that wasn’t really credible. The universities’ strategic judgement was that they were always going to lose out in a battle for public spending with higher profile causes, so they needed a different source of funding. That was the correct judgement then, and it was correct again in 2010.”

It wasn’t until late 2005, when he was appointed shadow education secretary (after backing the wrong horse – David Davis, rather than David Cameron – in the race for the leadership of the Conservative Party), that Willetts’ official position on fees changed, and he credits Cameron for deciding very early in his tenure that “our opposition to fees would be one of the first things we chuck”.

Much later in the Parliament, the Conservatives were faced with a decision that would come to haunt their Liberal Democrat coalition colleagues: whether or not to sign up to the National Union of Students’ pledge not to raise fees after the 2010 general election.

Willetts, who was by this time shadow universities minister, wrote to all Conservative candidates in the run-up to the election, telling them not to put their name to the pledge.

“I suspect that may have cost us some seats,” he says, “but it was the right and responsible thing to do. While I regret very much seeing Vince [Cable] and others losing [their seats in last month’s general election], we did take a hit in 2010 for not taking the easy option and signing that pledge.”

Instead, he says, he promised the NUS before the 2010 election that he would do only what he thought was in the best interests of students – and he is adamant that he delivered on that.

The other key landmark at this time was the Browne Review – convened with cross-party support and overseen by Lord Browne of Madingley – which recommended uncapping fees and imposing a government levy on universities’ fee income above a certain level. It was published shortly after the election, in October 2010, and promptly eviscerated.

For Willetts, what was proposed by the review had several flaws. “It had a problem for the Lib Dems because you could say that there was no cap on fees; and it had a problem for universities in that there was a very savage levy. I was actually lobbied by representatives of leading research intensive universities against it, because, they said: ‘We’ll have to go through all the flak of setting fees at £8K, £10K, £12K, but the government will be taking 60 per cent, or whatever the exact figure was. So we’ll be going through all that grief to collect taxes for you.’

“I said to John [Browne] at the time, ‘Why on earth is the levy so high?’ And he said: ‘We don’t have enough evidence on the actual repayment rates from individual universities; we can only do a generic [levy] that we think captures the overall risk of the loans not being paid back in a very crude way’.”

Which brings us to the package of reforms that was eventually put to Parliament in December 2010. One imagines there was fevered horse-trading within the coalition in the run-up to the vote.

“It was a bit odd, actually, because the Lib Dems could abstain [from the vote] – they had the right not to participate – so it was much more driven by the Conservatives,” Willetts recalls.

“The Lib Dems wanted a high repayment threshold, but I could [in any event] see the case for that being progressive – though it’s ended up being even higher than was intended at the time because wages did not grow as rapidly as was forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility. Looking back, what I could have done was insert after the £21K [repayment threshold figure] something in brackets saying: ‘ie, x per cent of earnings’. So it was set to be generous, but has ended up being even more generous than was intended because wages have underperformed.”

Willetts is less willing to concede that it was a mistake not to include a provision for the £9,000 fee cap to rise in line with inflation – although he says that this change should be made at some point.

“The judgement [in 2010] was that it was clearly going to be so controversial and such a difficult vote that I didn’t want to have to come back to the House of Commons. I didn’t want to have to say, ‘Oh, we haven’t saved enough money’ or ‘HE is in a crisis.’ I didn’t want to have to come back at any point in the next five years. So I argued for a high fee level so there was headroom…so that universities could manage at that level for several years without it changing.”

Such policy details mattered little to the young people who took to the streets in their tens of thousands in that winter of student discontent. So what was it like to be standing in the Palace of Westminster with crowds baying outside? Willetts is remarkably sanguine when he recalls those scenes. “I was, of course, very aware of the irony that here was I who had written a whole book about the importance of young people [The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give it Back], and I thought – and still believe – that what I was doing was, in the circumstances, in the interests of young people. But having so many of them so angry…”

He trails off.

In his view, the anger was fuelled at least in part by misconceptions about how the fees system would work – that this wasn’t an “upfront cost” – and fanned further by the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance. But he says that within government, “people were pretty robust” in the face of the protests.

“David [Cameron] was not a micro-interventionist. He trusted you to get on with things and let you get on with them, but equally [he] was solid in supporting us,” Willetts explains.

“The point which mattered to me most was the second year of applications. With all the controversy, we’d had more [university] applications the year before [the fee cap was raised], followed by a predictable dip in 2012. We were all watching what would happen in the second year of the reforms, and if a downward trend had been established with a further fall in applications, at that point we’d have thought we had a problem – that we were losing one of the big prizes of the reforms, which was allowing more people to go to university.

“I can still remember in January 2013 when those application figures showed a clear bounce back, and that was the point that we felt we were out of the woods.”

One of the predictions that came back to haunt Willetts was his claim in early 2011 that universities that charged the maximum fee of £9,000 would be the exception and that those that did so risked looking “rather silly” if students opted for cheaper alternatives. In the event, universities overwhelmingly opted to charge the full amount.

Given that exactly the same thing had happened with the introduction of the lower variable fee cap of £3,000 in 2006, it seems strange that Willetts got this so wrong.

“Looking back, it is kind of obvious, basically because of the generosity of the repayment system,” he says. “This idea of different fee levels went back to the original Browne proposals and the view that a market had to involve differential fees. Clearly, saying that £9K would be exceptional didn’t prove to be right, but a market with more student choice does not depend on different fee levels – you can still have lots of features of choice and competition without variable fees.”

A student holding a placard at a protest

If Willetts blames the generosity of the repayment system for the stillbirth of his differential fees plan, does he perhaps think that this has also taken the sting out of students’ ability or inclination to put pressure on universities over the quality of teaching?

That is not how he sees it, although he does state that teaching quality is “unfinished business”, asserting that “teaching has been by far the weakest aspect of English higher education”.

One of the promises in this year’s Conservative manifesto is that in the course of this Parliament the government will look to drive up teaching quality in universities, via something akin to a teaching excellence framework.

So is this what’s required to “finish” that business? “You can’t do everything in one go,” Willetts replies. “My view is that the information we require universities to publish, plus getting rid of the numbers cap, plus the money going with the student are already moving things in the right direction. But I emphatically think that the priority for this next term is the teaching experience, and the way into that is better metrics – that’s the challenge that we set in the Conservative manifesto. This will be Jo Johnson’s responsibility [as the universities and science minister], but there are obviously several candidates [for teaching metrics], ranging from Graham Gibbs’ student engagement work, which I think is very interesting, through to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Ahelo [Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project]. What we put in the manifesto is a challenge, not a cut and dried position on the metrics we will use as of May 2015.”

If the suggestion that £9,000 fees would be the exception was one prediction that came to dog Willetts, many would argue that another was his claim that alternative, private providers would be a “rising tide that lifts all boats” and would bring renewed vitality to a staid system.

The last Parliament came to a close with a Public Accounts Committee report, Financial Support for Students at Alternative Higher Education Providers, that was stinging in its criticism of the liberalisation of the student loans system. This prompted Margaret Hodge, the chair of the select committee, to accuse the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills of going ahead with its reforms to expand the role of private colleges “without ensuring there were controls in place to ensure that taxpayers’ money was used for its intended purpose of supporting higher education and not for private gain”.

However, Willetts stands by his “rising tide” analogy, insisting that English higher education has been formed over the centuries by successive waves of newcomers.

“I envisaged that what the alternative providers would do was come in with a businesslike approach; and while I didn’t expect competition between £8,500 and £9,000, I did think there would be a kind of £5,000 fee for a businesslike vocational course delivered to higher education standards. Some of them have done that, but equally there have been also examples of abuse – and I don’t countenance abuse,” he says.

“If you look at the White Paper, we envisaged a regulatory framework, but in the event we had to use existing powers in an ad hoc way to regulate the private providers…But I think there are areas of training for the IT industry, for broadcasting, modern music academies, where new providers have come in and for the first time students who would have had to pay [upfront to study with a private provider] have got access to a loan, and I regard that as social progress.”

At some point, he says, there clearly does need to be a higher education bill, not least because the power wielded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England has been eroded as the proportion of public funding has declined.

One of the moments that Willetts counts among his successes came in 2013, when the chancellor, George Osborne, announced that the student numbers cap would be abolished. This was a bolt from the blue given the doubts about the sustainability of the funding system. However, when the Russell Group reacted with suspicion to the plans, and expressed worries about what they would mean for other funding streams, Willetts responded with uncharacteristic irritation. As was reported in Times Higher Education at the time, his annoyance came to the fore at a closed-door meeting of Universities UK, when he is said to have been asked for a guarantee that no funds would be taken from the science and research budget to pay for this expansion.

“I do remember the meeting. I would say that I was a bit tart with the vice-chancellor who made the point,” Willetts says. “I didn’t lose my temper…but I was tart because my view all along was that one of the big bits of unfinished business in English higher education was that there were young people who wanted to go to university, who would benefit from going to university, who were knocking on the door asking to be let in, but who we were turning away. And I think that was a scandal. So I did regard this as a crucial moment in our reform: that because we had got to a better funding model, we were able to get over that barrier.”

His irritation, he said, was that the most selective research universities, which were oversubscribed already, were failing to look beyond the partisanship that has become such a feature of UK higher education. “My view was that precisely because of their eminence, they had a leadership role for the sector as a whole. So I hoped they would look to the interests of the sector and the interests of young people…I get frustrated when higher education is treated as a zero-sum game: that if someone else benefits it must be at my expense.”

Much of the uncertainty about the funding model has focused on the rate at which student loans will (or will not) be repaid, with predictions spiralling higher and higher until it was forecast that as much as 45 pence in every pound loaned out would never be retrieved.

In July last year, a cross-party committee of MPs called for an urgent review of the sustainability of the student loan system, while critics have argued that this estimate of the money that will be lost – known as the resource accounting and budgeting (RAB) charge – suggests that the new system hasn’t actually saved any public money. Willetts doesn’t agree.

“I think that’s nonsense. It has clearly saved public money. This accounting stuff is made to sound much more complicated and much more obscurantist than it really is,” he says. “It is very simple: we replaced a grant that was public expenditure with a repayable loan that is not public expenditure, and how much is repaid over the next 30 years is impossible to predict, but successive governments have the scope to make policy changes as the world changes that will enable them to ensure, if they wish, that a very substantial amount will be repaid.”

Does it frustrate him that so much of the debate about his reforms has focused on this point? “Yes it does,” he replies. “I think it’s actually because our reforms are working: poor people haven’t been put off, so [critics] have retreated to this esoteric argument that somehow we haven’t saved money. I think they make very heavy weather of accounting issues and assume that everything is fixed for 30 years when it’s not.”

It’s interesting to hear Willetts dismissing critics from within academia as “esoteric” and “obscurantist”, not least because it was a charge he himself sometimes faced in politics: the notion that the man nicknamed “two brains” was too professorial to reach the absolute top in the cut and thrust of political life (the prime minister is said to have joked that his greatest fear was hearing that David Willetts was delivering a wide-ranging speech). So does he believe that his donnish inclinations disadvantaged him as a minister?

“Well, you can speculate,” he says. “It may hold you back, but on the other hand you only live once, and as you get older, you have to be what you are like – there’s no point trying to fake some other identity. And one of the things I’ve always loved about politics is trying to link up the evidence from social research or economics to real-life policy decisions, which you then have to try to sell to real-life constituents. That’s what I find most fulfilling, and if someone had said to me that the price you have to pay to get on in politics is give up doing that, then the price would be too high.

“One of the things I loved about universities and visiting universities was that as well as the inevitable conversations with vice-chancellors and students’ unions about the financing issues, you almost always got an hour or two with researchers doing fascinating stuff either in areas I knew a bit about – say on social change – or in areas I didn’t know anything about – nuclear physics or synthetic biology – and having this endless intellectual stimulation. I loved all that.”

With his new position at the Policy Institute at King’s, he can indulge his professorial side without fear – although he has faced other pressures, including from students.

“When my appointment was announced, the students’ union inevitably said, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ – or something a bit fruitier than that,” Willetts says. “But I did interviews with the student paper, the student radio, and I recently found myself leaving a meeting and running into some of the ‘Occupy’ protesters, and I had a very civilised chat and coffee with them.”

He has yet to extend this contact into the lecture theatre. His first steps into teaching are likely to be at the postgraduate level, he says, although he has participated in a massive online open course on the “internet of things” – and he has also written his first academic paper, launched this week, on the next steps in higher education reform (he describes the peer review process as an “interesting experience”).

Another big project, already under way, is what he says will be a “serious book about universities”, incorporating his own experiences as higher education minister (he is quick to clarify that it will not be a ministerial memoir, “the most deadly literary form”).

So as the dust settles on his political career, how does he look back on his time in charge of the sector he professes to have loved?

“In terms of low points: I was familiar with student protests, but going to Cambridge to give a lecture with Stefan Collini [a prominent critic of opening higher education to market forces] in the audience, where I wanted to address head-on those concerns about the spirit of the university and about marketisation, and to show up and be shouted down by Cambridge students shouting Collini-esque slogans because they had a high idea of a university but wouldn’t give me the opportunity to explain and engage – that was a low point. It was very sad.”

Against that, however, Willetts details what he sees as valuable and fulfilling accomplishments. “I think that universities in 2015 are better financed and in better shape than they were in 2010. And if you look at the impact of the age of austerity on conventional public institutions – on local authorities, on the police – I think that looking back I feel pride,” he says. “I think that lifting the student numbers cap will be viewed as a great social reform.”

David Willetts
Julian Anderson

Two brains speaks his mind: David Willetts on…

…a lack of boldness among universities

“It is still a source of frustration for me that international chains like Laureate or Apollo grow when there isn’t really a British equivalent.

“A lot of universities have a trusteeship model: we’ve been around a long time, our job is to pass it on to the next generation much as it is now.

“If you want to operate like that, fine; but we need some universities with an enterprise model – to recognise a fantastic opportunity to operate in five continents, to double or treble in size, to become a great British export.

“I did think – and I still hope – that one or two universities would convert into a limited company in order to raise a large amount of money and expand. I had commercial investors saying to me that if British higher education came up with an investable proposition, they would put a billion into creating a global chain.”

…the chancellor George Osborne

“The relationship with George was an absolutely crucial part of the job. He was always open to evidence and argument…and on the science side he first of all got the cash protection after BIS [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] had conceded a cut and I had to reopen [the budget negotiations with him]; and then if I could take him practical proposals about how public spending could leverage private spending, he was always receptive to that kind of argument.”

…the battle with Theresa May over international student visas

“It was a continuing source of tension. I have to say, being frank with the sector, that, as everyone knows, there was abuse. The sector has to recognise that.

“There’s also an area where the sector can do better, which is showing evidence for graduate departures. The Home Office view is that if you can’t show someone has left, then they haven’t left. So having better evidence on this front would strengthen our argument.”

…Ed Miliband and Vince Cable

“Ed Miliband made inequality a theme of his election campaign, but I don’t think that people felt he was a believer in spreading the wealth in the way that I was trying to describe in The Pinch, and I would argue that £6K fees would actually have the opposite effect of the one intended in that the real risk is people get an inferior university education because there isn’t enough resource behind them.

“I always thought that what we were doing, in ensuring universities were properly funded and lifting number controls, was right for the younger generation.

“As for Vince, I was sorry personally for him when he lost his seat – I enjoyed working with him.”

…Jo Johnson

“He’s a good thing. He was a PPS [parliamentary private secretary] in BIS. I dealt with him a lot in the No 10 Policy Unit, and he’s a very smart guy who is well disposed to universities – I think he will be good.”

…his most memorable university visits

“On one occasion I was given a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets in the form of a tiny test tube with some flecks at the base of it. These were academics at, I think, the bioinformatics institute outside Cambridge who had encoded Shakespeare’s sonnets in DNA. This is the ultimate way of storing data – we were seeing the future of librarianship.

“On another occasion, I remember being with George [Osborne] out in West London looking through a microscope at tissue on a Petri dish, and they said these are heart cells, and [I could see that] they were beating like a heart. That’s what happens when you grow heart cells above a certain volume, they start beating.”


Article originally published as: ‘I thought – and still believe – that what I was doing was in the interests of young people. But having so many of them so angry…’ (18 June 2015)

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Reader's comments (7)

David Willetts encouraged prospective students to go to university, and so incur a large debt, by telling them of the higher average lifetime incomes of graduates. Lifetime incomes can be known only at retirement from work, so his data related to graduates who had entered university some 45 years or so earlier, when minimum entry standards were MUCH higher. I fear that in a few years we shall have many disappointed graduates who are angry that their incomes are not as high as they were led to believe. What Willetts did was appalling. If it wasn't dishonest it was utter stupidity. If people are angry and tell him so, he deserves it.
Economic independence combined with a higher education foster good citizenship. In a society so heavily influenced by financial transactions, those members carrying debts and denied credits are seriously constrained. In practical terms they lose their freedom. Thus has been David Willetts achievement: the enslaving of a generation for which it will be harder to achieve economic independence and receive higher education. The ensuing damage of the UK universities is mitigated from the strong academic traditions that cannot be extinguished in only few years. At present, incentives are in place to run and evaluate universities as if they were private banks (see also Philip Moriarty in this week's issue). Their executives rejoice, everyone else needs to think, learn, organise and act. A contemporary Mexican poem, translated recently into Greek and English: https://fanismissirlis.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/lizdelgado/
The quotes above seem to show that David Willetts cannot imagine people doing something not for profit. Is he not aware of how badly the US public have been served by their for-profit sector.
A disgraceful whitewash, Willetts may enjoy rewriting history, but the TLS does not need to collaborate. Let us not forget that staff at most universities (including most of the teaching staff at King's College London) voted to condemn Willetts. But the unlamented Sir Rick Trainor *the man who put the con in consulttion" imposed him. (King's has more staff in unadvertisted posts than any other UK university.) To allow Willetts to blame Stefan Collini for the Cambridge demonstration is utterly shameful.
With a jaundiced eye, I say, the politicians view is always the same. Yes I got things completely wrong a few times, but overall I was right and everyone who doesn't agree with me was and is wrong. So stop protesting and do as your told, for I don't have to answer for any of my mistakes. I just move on, to stick my fingers into other pies I know little about.
I appreciate that ‘Professor’ Willetts’ ‘personal affability’ and donnish airs lead many in the sector to give him a sympathetic ear. But we must understand that he is affable because he is a practised politician, not because he is a coherent or ‘credible’, wonderful word, thinker on education. Obtuseness, short-termism, hubris, and ideological myopia are what consistently mark these and other public statements, rather than any evidence of intellect at work or serious thought about the purpose of education. This is one of the most striking examples. For example: 1) Willetts positions himself above the short-termist fray but says things like “that was the point that we felt we were out of the woods” only a year and a half into a massive policy change that will obviously have multi-generational consequences. It’s pure politics: ‘could we get away with it before the next general election?’ is all that matters. 2) Or, on that the fact that the student debt burden has the potential to be a disastrously more expensive to the tune of millions of pounds of public money, over many decades, breezily: “I think they make very heavy weather of accounting issues and assume that everything is fixed for 30 years when it’s not.” So: don’t worry your little head about all that, the clever men in Whitehall can always change the terms retrospectively or sell off the loan book by fiat to fix the hole. Aside from anything else, I’m sure that will be of great comfort to indebted graduates past and present. Perhaps we should default on our loans and say to the SLC or its successors: hey, don’t make heavy weather of it, why did you assume everything was fixed for thirty years? Oh no,_we_can’t. 3) “The way into [improving teaching] is better metrics”: said no-one with any significant pedagogic experience, ever. 4) “It is still a source of frustration for me that international chains like Laureate or Apollo grow when there isn’t really a British equivalent.” Does Willetts know absolutely nothing about the ongoing scandal of Apollo’s major subsidiary, the University of Phoenix, in relation to fraudulent marketing, enrolment, etc? Including multiple lawsuits from the US DoED? And the larger unfolding disaster of poor retention, poor employability, and massive debt (not least government debt) that the US for-profit sector has inflated? See recent piece by Andrew Delbanco and many others: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/jul/09/our-universities-outrageous-reality/ 5) Willetts bridles irritably at ‘Collini-esque slogans’. What I have read of Collini’s lengthy pieces and his What Are Universities For? suggests a far more considered and less slogan-bound account than Willett’s glib replies to such critiques (“I plead guilty to believing in choice and competition”: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n14/letters#letter1 - pure rhetoric. NB also that he picks a more limited piece by Howard Hotson to jump on). I will look forward to his ‘serious book’ with interest although without much hope that he will ever really engage seriously with the arguments about the much bigger educational historical and societal picture in Collini’s ‘From Robbins to McKinsey’, Andrew McGettigan’s Great Universities Gamble, etc. This is not a man who is thinking about argument and counter-argument, caveat, falsification, unintended real world consequences or anything that might suggest the serious intellectual presence to which he aspires: it’s summed up in his admiring comment about George Osborne: “he was always receptive to that kind of argument.” What is politically expedient and ideologically pre-approved, we like. Anything else can go hang. Please, stop treating this man as an intellectual. That is not what one does.
Great to have a minister who, on leaving, is enthralled enough to start publishing his own academic work. Why not start that global university? (PS: consider making an open google scholar profile, I think people will be surprised!)