Posted tagged ‘David Willetts’

Sic transit

July 14, 2014

Readers of this blog may forgive me for a very short post today. I have been on a short holiday in America, and have only just returned. This week RGU has its summer graduations, and it is a busy week for me as I recover from jet lag.

However, I would want to note that over recent days, in two separate jurisdictions that both have had cabinet reshuffles, Ministers in charge of higher education have retired from the scene. In Ireland it has been Ruairi Quinn, and in England David Willetts. These are both very different men, but they have shared one thing in common: that they both value and have wanted to engage constructively with universities. One of these Ministers may have views that are rather closer to mine than those of the other, but I have met them both and found them both impressive, in different ways.

All too often university affairs are governed by politicians who have little understanding of higher education and who see their responsibility primarily in terms of where it will take their careers. Neither Ruairi Quinn nor David Willetts were of that kind. I wish both of them well, and I suspect they have more to offer still, and that we may yet get some of their reflections in published form.


Bringing up Robbins

October 22, 2013

Almost exactly 50 years ago saw the publication of the Report of the Committee Appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins – the slightly unwieldy title of what became known as the Robbins Report, the most extensive review of higher education ever conducted in these islands. The report set out four aims of higher education: (i) instruction in skills, (ii) promoting the ‘general powers of the mind’, (iii) the advancement of learning, and (iv) the ‘transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship’. The report also set out guiding principles, including the principle that ‘higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.’

The report had a huge impact and influenced the course of British higher education (and perhaps that in other countries) for the next few decades. And now, 50 years later, the current English Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, has written a pamphlet (published by the Social Market Foundation) reflecting on Robbins and looking at how, in the light of the principles of that report, the university system should now develop. In doing so Willetts embraces what he regards as some key themes of Robbins: the expansion of higher education; the importance of teaching (he believes it needs to be moved centre stage, partly through the better use of technology); the avoidance of inappropriate specialisation; and the development of effective funding models (he believes the UK government has got this right).

It is possible to argue with the Minister’s conclusions while still admiring his willingness to engage in this debate. Fifty years after Robbins, it is indeed time to look again at where higher education should go.

How should we view student debt?

November 22, 2011

One of the growing concerns across the developed world is that student debt will increasingly deter young people from entering higher education. In the United States the level of graduate debt is now over $900 billion, a sum considerably larger than American credit card debt. In England individual student debt in the more extreme cases has risen above £60,000.

So is this a major problem in the quest to widen participation in higher education? Not so, according to the English Universities Minister David Willetts in an interview in the Guardian newspaper:

‘We’re trapped in this language of debt. It’s not like leaving university with £25,000 worth of debt on your credit card or anything. If someone said your child was leaving university with £25,000 on a credit card, you’d be quite rightly horrified. If someone said they’re leaving university and during their working lives they’re going to pay half a million pounds of income tax, you’d be completely relaxed. And our graduate repayment scheme is closer to – it’s not exactly the same – but it’s closer to the income-tax end of the scale than the credit-card end of the scale. If their earnings ever fall below £21,000, at that point any repayment stops. It’s 9% of earnings only above £21,000. If you’re earning £25,000, that’s £30 a month. So it is a graduate repayment scheme that has many of the features of income tax. It’s not like some debt around their necks.’

The Minister’s argument is not on the face of it absurd. In fact, if the government had decided to generate the income for universities through a graduate tax, or rather if it had labelled the same scheme differently, the effect might have been different. But it didn’t, and fees will be funded by loans, which in turn produce debt. It is still too early to gauge exactly what impact this is having, but the first visible effect has been a significant reduction in the number of student applicants.

The evidence from the United States, Australia and Britain all points to a similar conclusion: that student loans have unintended consequences and present both a disincentive to study and financial uncertainties attached to repayments. In this setting, it would be wise for countries contemplating loan schemes – like Ireland – to think again. It is one thing to ask those who can afford to do so to pay a tuition fee; it is another to suggest to those who cannot afford it that a loan may be an acceptable form of support. It almost certainly isn’t.

Opening or closing down the big higher education debate?

May 31, 2011

For anyone interested in assessing the options for higher education development, this could be a golden age. All over the developed world governments, major interest groups in society and the academy itself are voicing concern about the vitality or sustainability of the higher education sector, and are offering a bewildering array of solutions. These range from ‘as we were’, but with rather more money, to somewhat more exotic market-driven (or apparently so) ideas. All of this is backed up (or made more confusing) by position papers, discussion documents, articles and speeches.

Nobody knows where all of this is going. Indeed how could they, as the common feature of almost every assessment is a belief that something (though not necessarily the same something) is badly wrong and change is urgent; but there is no consensus as to what that change should be. There isn’t even a consensus as to what options should be on the menu. Actually, there isn’t a consensus as to what higher education really really is nowadays.

Various academic commentators (not excluding this one) write about how low morale is, and how academics feel they are under attack from all quarters. But maybe that isn’t the real problem: what makes it all so difficult is that it is so overwhelmingly chaotic.  I don’t mean that there are too many competing views: there’s nothing wrong with a competition of ideas. Rather, I mean that those devising public policy seem at sea, jumping this way and that at a moment’s notice, and all too often appearing to present budgetary solutions masquerading as education policy. So perhaps not a golden age.

One politician chucking ideas around like confetti at a wedding is the English Universities Minister, David Willetts. He is a member of a somewhat volatile government many of whose fault lines run under the higher education landscape. Almost every suggestion for change coming from the Cameron/Clegg administration has the potential to derail the coalition, before you even get to the effect it may or may not have on the education system itself. Most recently Mr Willetts came under fire from all sorts of quarters, including it would seem from his Prime Minister, for suggesting that off-quota student places could be sold off for a profit as a way of bringing extra cash into the universities. The howls of opposition (or derision) had closed down the idea between breakfast and lunch on the same day. Quickly the message was put out that the Minister had been misunderstood, and the discussion was shelved.

In some circles this shutdown of the debate generated unease. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton, Don Nutbeam, wrote in the journal Times Higher Education:

‘Willetts should be encouraged, not punished, for testing ideas in public, however radical they may be. Every time debate is closed down, we lose an opportunity to examine and test more fully the implications of the government’s direction in higher education policy, and its overall coherence.’

In the same issue of THE the editor, Ann Mroz, asked in an editorial why we are ‘so hostile to one who attempts to enlist rational debate to find solutions’ and wondered whether this response from the academic community placed them at risk of having reform forced upon them without the opportunity to influence it.

In general terms these are very reasonable comments. Intellectual debate is not won by those who shout loudest but by those who present a well argued analysis with compelling evidence. As I understand Don Nutbeam and Ann Mroz, they both had strong doubts about the Minister’s proposals but felt that the academy’s response should have focused on the arguments rather than heap abuse on David Willetts.

It’s hard to disagree with that. However, there is a fundamental difference between opening a debate and announcing a policy, even tentatively. The problem with the UK government’s approach to English higher education is that it has not recognised the proper demarcation between what Don Nutbeam calls ‘testing ideas’ on the one hand and policy formulation on the other. On top of that, policy formulation has been erratic and often very badly explained. This in turn creates a kind of raw nervousness in the academic community and helps to explain the responses.

The main reason why I suspect we are not living in a golden age of higher education debate is because very little of whatever debate we are having is actually about education. It’s about means, resources, processes, institutions, regulations and controls; it’s not about knowledge, pedagogy and scholarship. The tetchiness of the exchanges is prompted by the inadequacy of the subject matter. The grandeur of education is being stuffed into a budget envelope. This is as true of the academic contributions as it is of government policies. We need to raise our sights, and more than a little, and need to rediscover some sense of the potential of higher education in its real mission.

The new world of higher education: a ‘supply side revolution’?

May 16, 2011

For those grappling with the question of what exactly the British government wants to achieve in higher education, here is the answer offered by Daily Telegraph pundit Benedict Brogan, who is thought to have access to Downing Street thinking. What Universities Minister David Willetts, backed by David Cameron, is wanting to introduce, he says, is a ‘supply side revolution’. If you need to stop and think what that actually means, let me draw it out briefly. ‘Supply side’ is an economists’ perspective that suggests that growth will be maximised if barriers to production are lowered, and if restrictions are removed (such as tax, regulation and so forth).

Applied to higher education, this could mean removing restrictions stopping universities from recruiting as many students as they can accommodate. In his blog Brogan suggests that the following is intended:

‘The idea, as I initially heard it, was to consider easing the cap on admissions at the upper level by allowing the top establishments charging the full £9000 to let in more top students – those scoring 2 As and B minimum – than they currently are allowed to. And I’m told another change being contemplated would lift the admissions cap on those universities serving the cheaper end of the market. New institutions inexpensive two year degrees, for example, would be free to allow as many students in as they could cope with.’

How such reforms would work in terms of public funding and public borrowing is not immediately easy to see, unless the government were to adopt policies that would impose no burden on the taxpayer by these universities admitting larger numbers of students. Furthermore, what would happen to the universities in the middle ground who are thought to be neither ‘top establishments’ nor on the ‘cheaper end of the market’? And how could this scheme be arranged without having the ‘top establishments’ also become socially elite institutions largely catering for the rich?

However, if there is a major policy perspective that lies at the heart of the British government decision-making (which for now merely looks chaotic), then it might be a good idea to articulate it clearly rather than releasing it via a journalist’s blog (however important we might think blogs to be). One must presume that it may be stated more clearly in the much delayed White Paper.

So what is the core business of a business school?

May 11, 2011

It has long been accepted that business schools are not like other academic units. This is often reflected in somewhat different organisational structures, and sometimes in different working conditions, funding mechanisms, institutional linkages and so forth. Business schools typically have larger numbers of postgraduate taught students, and few research students. Undergraduate students have a highly vocational outlook on what they are doing, and postgraduates mostly take courses as a direct way of moving up the corporate ladder.

Many business schools have been slow to develop a major research profile; and now one of the questions raised is whether they should be bothering with research at all. English Universities Minister David Willetts is reported in the Financial Times to have suggested that ‘Britain’s business schools should offer more practical help to companies and spend less time on academic research.’ Indeed he declared that where business schools are focusing on research they may be ‘damaging their performance’, not least because in his view research was often being published in ‘obtuse [sic] American academic business journals’ (did he mean ‘obscure’?).

Whether he is right or not will depend to a large extent on how we see business schools. If we see them as industry training organisations, he may be right. But in that case we would probably need academic ‘management’ departments or the like, a distinction which does in fact exist in some universities. On the other hand, if we believe that business schools have their greatest value when they engage in knowledge transfer of both professional best practice and relevant scholarship, then what he is saying is much less sensible. It will be important for universities and their business schools to engage with this topic explicitly. The Minister’s statement should not be left hanging in the air.

Buying into the idea of a university

May 10, 2011

For those of us not working in English higher education, the stream of news coming from there consistently manages to amaze. The latest story, which may or may not have been fully grounded in reality, was that the British government was contemplating the idea of having unfunded university places that could, therefore, be filled by those with the means to buy their way in at full cost fees (with or without the normally expected academic qualifications).

In the latest twist to this story, Prime Minister David Cameron has said that this is not the plan; but there is a suspicion that ideas were floated along these lines but then dropped when it looked to be generating too much opposition.

Whether the story in its original form was true or not, there is now a dangerous level of instability and unpredictability in English higher education, which is unsettling the sector and affecting its reputation at home and overseas. Having higher education chaos in England is not in the interests of the rest of us, not least because the disease is catching. It is, perhaps, time for a less wacky approach to university matters south of the border.