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Review of David Willetts’s ‘A University Education’ by Professor Andy Westwood

  • 23 November 2017
  • By Andy Westwood

Last night, HEPI – kindly supported by the UPP Foundation and Oxford University Press, as well as Warwick Business School – hosted an event to mark the launch of David Willetts’s new book, A University Education.

After Lord Willetts had run through some of the key arguments in the book, Sir Michael Barber provided a response and Branwen Jeffreys (Education Editor at the BBC) chaired a lively discussion.

Today, on the day of publication, we are pleased to be able to host a review of the book the Professor Andy Westwood, a Vice Dean in the Faculty of Humanities and Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester (and a former Special Adviser to John Denham during this time as the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills). 

‘I love universities’ says David Willetts in the first line of A University Education. Few would challenge him on that. This is at its heart a labour of that love. He is keen to point out that this is not a traditional political memoir, though in places – such as his account of the Browne Review’s proposals and the reform events leading up to £9k fees – it does feel like one. However, it is still striking that Willetts looks back with more interest on the brief and on universities themselves than on the politics that surrounded them. Ministers ‘going native’ in their brief is often seen as a cardinal political sin, but for David Willetts it has always been something to embrace.

His history of universities is meticulously researched and incredibly detailed. Doubtless there are passages here that were edited out of his HE white paper in 2011 and others from the draft legislation that never followed. So here in all its extended glory is the context he wanted to provide at that time but which others deemed unnecessary. He tells how Oxbridge  might have been Northbury (Northampton and Salisbury). How the Royal Society, Gresham College or a Francis Bacon Research Institute might have threatened the dominance of Oxbridge. How in 1643 William Dell, a Parliamentarian during the Civil War, suggested universities at York, Exeter, Bristol and Norwich – and how the Royalists were the original ‘more means worse’.  Disraeli and Gladstone clashed over Oxford’s autonomy.

But it’s not a sentimental history. Willetts is happy to take on and debunk some of the sacred texts of Newman, Johnson, Humboldt and Bentham. He criticises Robbins for failing to tackle the problem of how to pay for his expanded system. He dismisses Kingsley Amis, Alison Wolf and Stefan Collini in one passage and offers mild rebukes for many others too. Crosland’s formation of polytechnics and the ensuing class hierarchy is described as pleasing a ‘few snobs at the centre and bullies at the periphery’.

The ‘bring backery’ offered by others since that time is dismissed as firmly. Willetts describes Michael Gove’s spell at the Department for Education (DfE) as ‘five years of permanent revolution’, leaving education more or less as it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He calls Gove’s attempts to put schools in charge of teacher training as ‘one of the most inept and ill conceived’ attempts ‘to create quasi markets in public services’ that he has ever witnessed.

Two major themes run through the first part of the book: the first is how our distinctive UK system of higher education – centred on the ‘medieval model’ and shaped and defended by a frequently prohibitive Oxbridge duopoly – has emerged. The second theme is how best way to pay for it. In this theme it is perhaps unsurprising that Willetts concludes that the model he introduced in 2011 is the best option. It is his book after all and although occasionally this feels like post hoc rationalisation of income contingent loans, well-funded institutions and uncapped numbers, his arguments are always well made.

But the most significant theme emerges more fully towards the end. ‘Our educational problem’ writes Willetts, ‘is that we do everything too young.’ From investment and the ‘schoolification’ of early years and lesser interest in FE, HE and adults doing virtually anything anywhere. He rails against the poor evidence driving this ‘early years determinism’  and is ‘shocked at the barbarism’ of forcing life-changing choices at sixteen. This is ‘scandalous’ and ‘blights people’s lives’.

The ‘narrow structure’ of A-Levels and our ‘unusual pattern of higher education are directly connected’. Universities – especially Oxford and Cambridge – are complicit in this problem. There have been many moments when our system might have been formed differently. We might have delivered a credit-based or a local regional model in the French, German or American style as opposed to the ‘boarding school’ model, based on an expensive, elite tradition. The irresistible power and self interest of Oxbridge feature at several stages in this account, but special criticism is made of how they resisted the establishment of any other universities in England between 1209 and 1829.

Regrets? He has a few. The decline in part time numbers since 2011 is perhaps the most obvious. But there are several more. Trying to stop institutions offering four-year programmes,  going too far in the REF’s focus on only 3 and 4-star research, not doing enough for applied research or to make the case for other government departments to do so are others. Willetts is also pained by his and others’ failures in the language and narrative of policymaking. He describes his 2011 as having ‘some pretty dreadful bureaucratic prose’ and not nearly enough history, context or appreciation for universities as valuable institutions. More intriguing is how he describes ‘the tone of its successor in 2016 (as) if anything, worse.’

The 2017 Act isn’t the legislation he would have drafted either. He worries about separating out supporting research and regulating teaching – losing an overall focus on universities and stating that not everything ‘divides neatly’. Willetts suggests that he would have preferred a ‘son of HEFCE’ model and predicts that in time the OFS will become the Office for Universities and Students. He is definitely not keen on universities being back in the DfE, where he agrees strongly with Robbins’s arguments against this approach. And while he wholeheartedly supports the need to improve both the quantity and quality of teaching, he is more than a little lukewarm about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). It’s ‘flawed metrics’, especially relating to employment outcomes, shouldn’t be ‘taken as a proxy for the quality of teaching when there is little evidence to justify that assumption’. He prefers a more ‘Gibbsian’ approach promoting the amount of teaching and quality measured by class size and intensity.

But on the major principle of competition and markets he is unapologetic. He describes the idea of a market in higher education as ‘not new and American’ but ‘old and English’. He insists that despite any squeamishness, students should be consumers, insurgents will drive innovation and over-powerful supplier interests should always be challenged. This is where Willetts is at his most ideological. But even here he is not wilfully destructive. Universities should not go bust or be allowed to fail. They are simply too important for that.

Universities’ grip on research is also criticised. There is too much blue skies or basic research and not enough applied, not enough spending on it from other government departments and too much pressure on the science budget and the Haldane Principle as a result. He bemoans Margaret Thatcher’s decision to withdraw funding from applied research institutes and leaving them to the vagaries of the market. It leaves universities too dominant and too impervious to local businesses and economies – and research too narrowly focused on what it means to be world class and league-table performance.

Throughout the book, you can hear David Willetts’s voice very clearly. I defy any reader not to hear him saying some of the lines and repeating some of the arguments. That’s all to the good and his even-handed style of politics and fascination for evidence is constant and total. He often goes out of his way not to be too critical of his successors – at least not too much.

But his lukewarm support for the TEF and the Higher Education Research Act (2017) may provide some uncomfortable reading for Jo Johnson, Sajid Javid and Justine Greening. There may even be the odd splutter in a senior common room or two. But most readers in higher education will definitely find it much more interesting. That will be as true in Bristol, Coventry or Edge Hill as it is in Sussex, Birmingham and Teesside. Also for those hoping to set up new universities in Hereford, Shrewsbury or Yeovil and for those owning BPP, the University of Law or for others hoping to buy or establish similar institutions.

Along with the name checks, they will all enjoy the detailed analysis of science, history and politics, although they will also have to think hard about the challenges that Willetts poses them. This is still a book that advocates and celebrates change and demands that universities, past, present and future think much more seriously about the world around them. It isn’t always easy reading. So even when readers disagree with some of his arguments and conclusions, many will wonder what higher education legislation might have looked like if David Willetts had been more involved. I suspect even he would admit that there would be differences between what he thinks now and what he might have produced while in office.

But it is to David Willetts credit that he continues to think and to learn about higher education. His university education doesn’t quite feel over yet. In a recent debate with Andrew Adonis, he said that the longer he was in office the harder he found it to decide what constituted either a good or a bad university. For any higher education minister, that’s a very welcome kind of uncertainty.

‘I meant it when I said that I loved universities’ he repeats in one of the later chapters of A University Education and you not only believe him, you also believe that he really does mean all of them.

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