A University Education. By David Willetts. Published by Oxford University Press. £25.
This is a book that claims to offer answers to pretty much any question you’d want to know about a university. How many hours does the average student work each week? 30, says David Willetts, the Conservative peer and former minister for universities, scolding that “English university students just do not have enough time on task.” Do graduates help economic growth? Yes, he replies: around 20% of economic growth from 1982-2005 came directly from “increased graduate skills accumulation.” And he provides a fact-packed account of the history of universities along with his analysis of the long-running debate that led to the introduction of £9,000 fees when he was the coalition government’s universities minister.
It’s an invaluable guide for anyone who wants to understand the modern university system, both here and abroad; and I believe Willetts when he says as his opening words “I love universities”. So why was I not convinced by all of the Willetts prescription? It comes down partly, I think, to an argument about head versus heart.
The controversy over tuition fees illustrates it best. Willetts makes the case well about the unfinished business of university expansion and sustainable funding, and also about trying to preserve access and equal opportunities in a time of austerity. £9,000 fees have given universities some certainty about resources, and the admissions statistics show that they haven’t deterred poorer students in a way that up-front payments did. But every day I meet brilliant young people from a multiplicity of backgrounds who will be leaving university with debts of around £50,000 per head – or £100,000 if they’re studying to be a medic or vet. Willetts explains that it’s not like having a credit card bill at that level, and it’s really more like a graduate tax, and it will either be paid back by the wealthier or written off for the poorer. But if we believe in higher education, does a personal debt level that high, with punitive interest rates, feel appropriate for this generation when people of my age left university not owing a penny? Society’s discomfort is why the issue is not yet settled.
There’s a similar case about measurement of what universities do. Everything Willetts argues for sounds perfectly sensible, until you look at what his reforms and others have meant for those working in the sector. When I arrived in Cambridge, I was struck by the immense irritation there was with the perceived deficiencies of ‘the REF’ – the Research Excellence Framework. Willetts is sceptical about aspects of its later companion, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), but his solution is to look for more metrics: “it is surely reasonable to expect these key indicators to be measured.”
The problem here is twofold. First, there is already a huge amount of government intervention in the higher education sector. An academic newly arrived on these shores said to me recently that he was ‘shocked’ by the amount of regulation there is in the UK – with the new-fangled Office for Students due in April next year, and other burdens such as implementing the Prevent legislation. The second is simply how much time is required by the REF and TEF and placating other regulators. Until last year I chaired the governors at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln, and I was staggered by the amount of data required by external bureaucracies and just how much time was spent on filling forms and satisfying HEFCE and the QAA and the rest. I see little evidence that Willetts would shift the workload decisively back towards teaching and research, or that he’d get the government off the backs of academics.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
This isn’t to say that we should ignore some of his challenges. It’s correct to ask whether UK universities should have a more global role, and how they might exploit new technology more effectively for learning. I strongly support his view that we need to be even more ambitious about the higher education sector in a time of Brexit. Willetts is also right to question whether school students here specialise too early, though I’m sure head teachers would share the feeling in universities that more Whitehall tinkering is the last thing they need now.
But underpinning the unease about some of the analysis is the lack of enough of a human perspective. Willetts proudly says that he’s been to almost all of the UK’s universities, and he dutifully inserts an anecdote or two. Yet what seems to be underplayed is the very spirit of higher education: the ambitions of youth, the exciting outcomes of academic innovation, and the warmth of the lifelong communities that are created on our campuses. British universities are admired around the world, and there’s no doubt Willetts wants to preserve and enhance that. But there might just be a case for permitting the universities themselves to come up with their blueprints for the future, and for politicians – however well-informed – to let them get on with it.
Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge