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Willetts resigns as Minister for Universities & Science

July 15, 2014

In advance of David Cameron’s ministerial and cabinet reshuffle, David Willetts has announced that he is standing down as Minister for Universities and Science and that he will not contest his parliamentary seat at the general election next year. Willetts took up the post in 2010, when the coalition government formed,  but he had held the shadow brief for universities and HE since 2005. He has been such a fixture  that one suggestion for my book’s title was, “When Willetts End?”.

In place of a considered assessment I would direct readers to the two headline HE policies  on the BIS website.

The second is, ‘Making the higher education system more efficient and diverse’. That entails:

Introducing a financially sustainable funding system and a diverse, competitive sector with a wide range of providers.

Neither of those components has been achieved successfully.

The HE financing regime is still transitioning towards ‘sustainability’: wrangling with the generalised fee-loan regime will dominate the next parliament. Moreover the collapse in part-time enrolments belies any claim to diversity of provision.

The advent of ‘alternative providers’ was rushed and botched.  The full story of regulatory failure and lax controls on public funding is yet to come out, though the contours are appearing.

On the merit side, Willetts did defend the science and research budgets. These were protected from austerity’s cuts in cash terms and from the ‘major fiscal challenge’ of the Autumn when the explosion in funded private students put pressure on the departmental budget. Cuts have instead been seen to widening participation funds and Disabled Students Allowance.

With his replacement to be announced imminently, there will be brief trepidation: will the sector be lumbered with a right-wing headbanger? will they ‘get’ universities?

For reasons developed elsewhere on this blog, and sketched above, I feel it may be better to understand HE as more influenced by the Treasury. December’s Autumn Statement, the changes to loan accounting in April, the rising liabilities associated with undergraduate funding and the pursuit of a loan book sale all point to that conclusion.


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