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Thursday 18th October 2012 | 20:02
Perched high on BIS’s seventh floor, with a bird’s eye view of the pale stone of Westminster Abbey, David Willetts’s office feels more like the eyrie of a cheerful Oxbridge don than a ministerial cubbyhole.
The tasteful paintings on the walls are not from the Government art collection but are by his artist wife Sarah, one of a Tube station near his London home and one of a retail park in his Havant constituency.
The famously cerebral Minister for Higher Education also has a bookcase crammed with learned works and, like any self-respecting academic, quite a few bear his own name. Willetts must be the only minister of Her Majesty’s Government who has a whole shelf devoted to the panoply of books that he has himself authored.
There are three editions of The Pinch alone, just in case any visiting dignitary wants a signed copy. (“What better present could she or he have?” he jokes.)
Not so much an ivory tower as a glass and steel one, the Willetts den is currently focused on maintaining British universities’ world class reputation in an increasingly competitive market.
He’s had a busy month, jetting with the Prime Minister to Brazil to bang the drum for higher education, before embarking on the Tory conference’s dizzying round of speeches and fringe meetings last week.
But there is one serious problem that keeps cropping up both at home and abroad: this summer’s decision of the UK Border Agency to suddenly revoke London Metropolitan University’s licence to sponsor international students. The shock of the move has rung out across the world, from Beijing to Rio. Does he recognise the damage done to Britain’s reputation overseas?
“I do understand that. This has been if anything a bigger story internationally than back home. And it’s very important that overseas students have confidence that if they come to Britain legitimately to study they can complete their course.
“Which is why on the day of the decision I set up a task force clearing house so that every overseas student at London Met who was entitled to be studying in Britain had the opportunity of continuing their studies.”
He points out that he and Universities UK’s Eric Thomas jointly authored an article in the Brazilian press saying Britain is open for legitimate overseas students. “The message has gone out through Foreign Office posts in places like China, India.”
It all sounds like a desperate rearguard action. Does Willetts regret the London Met move? “It was an operational decision by the Border Agency. What we’ve done in this department is I think we all worked closely as we can with universities and the Foreign Office and others to try to ensure that our international reputation is not damaged by this unhappy episode.”
Willetts also responded to the London Met spat by announcing a “disaggregating” of migration figures in a bid to make clear that “if you’re coming to Britain to study, you’re not a permanent migrant – and I think we can make all that clear by disaggregation of the statistics.”
On the wider issue of migration, Willetts sounds like he agrees with his boss Vince Cable, who recently declared a wish to “wield the axe over the enormous amounts of red tape around the whole immigration system”.
“We discussed this in the Coalition and certainly we do need to ensure we have a competitive offer,” Willetts says. “It’s part of this wider message. When you’re sitting in China deciding where to go on holiday, it’s very important that Paris and Rome shouldn’t look like easy options and London and Edinburgh look like a load of hassle.
“That’s something George Osborne cares about as well as Vince and myself. We’re going to have people flowing through all the time, coming in and out, investors, entrepreneurs, students, Chinese tourists. Under the previous Government it wasn’t properly measured and controlled. It has to be done effectively and there was a loss of confidence in our system – and I have to say HE was part of that. I see cracking down on the abuse as actually very important for… the brand of British HE. People should be confident of its high standards”
On Willetts’s bookshelf is another of his works, Conservatives in Birmingham, produced four years ago when the party held its first conference there for more than 75 years. It’s a reminder of his own roots in the city and his first taste of schooling excellence: the former direct grant school King Edward’s.
Andrew Adonis’s new book laments the way Shirley Williams attacked the direct grant system. Willetts has a copy and says he’s looking forward to reading it because the fate of the direct grants “strikes a particular personal chord with me”.
“My first kind of political experience, the first thing that got me interested in politics was the then Labour Government telling our school that you either have to go fully independent outside the system or you have to go comprehensive. And King Edward’s went fully independent.
Although it’s now described as a private school, when I was there I can’t remember anybody who paid any fees. You were all there financed by your local authority. I was doing my A levels. That was the first time that politics intruded on my life.”
Willetts says that he also “understands” why people like Adonis and Peter Lampl argue for more access to private excellence and a modern form of direct grant system. But he’s reluctant to go back to the old ways.
“The thing is the world does move on and you can’t always recreate what you had before. And I know whenever we’ve looked at things like assisted places it’s quite hard to operate in a way that’s fair and equitable. And it’s part of the endless dilemma as a Conservative isn’t it? There are underlying consistent beliefs but they have a different expression, they sometimes take different institutional forms as the world changes. So I think it would be hard just to recreate the world of 1974 in education.”
The clamour for grammar schools was palpable at the party conference. How does direct grant-educated Willetts answer the charge that say he’s simply pulling the ladder up after himself?
“I guess part of the issue is when I sat the 11 plus in Birmingham in 1967 everybody at my local primary school in Wylde Green in Birmingham sat the exam. My primary school was a completely normal school, nothing special about it. And most of us were living with our two parents and it was quite a stable society and you could kind of run the race of life from a starting line at the age of 11.
“Even then it was controversial, of course there were arguments there were late developers, there were people who lost out, people underperformed in the exams. One of the things that has happened since is the divergence between the experiences and opportunities and the different primary schools that you go to has got far greater. There’s more private education, I don’t criticise people for that – it’s a perfectly reasonable choice if you wish for your children to be privately educated. I think it’s harder to do now because we’ve already got more advantage and disadvantage.”
So, he hasn’t changed his mind on grammar schools, since his famous 2007 speech that ‘there’s overwhelming evidence that selection entrenches advantage’?
“I believe in evidence based policy, that’s what the Coalition believes in and I in that speech cited the evidence as I understand it. The Coalition policy is based on the evidence. There are no plans for a return to the 11 plus.”
Willetts has no responsibility for school policy but he believes university can allow state pupils to shine. “One of the great things about universities, is that if anything they are the first stage of the education process where disadvantage is reversed. It looks as if when you turn up at university, you reset the dial, you move away from home and this is controversial and the evidence is mixed, but if anything the evidence suggests on balance that sometimes kids from tougher backgrounds outperform when they arrive at university. That I really salute, it’s one of the achievements of our universities. They do look as if they can spot talent and develop it and so the good news is we needn’t be kind of Calvinist determinist about this.”
In a country where being ‘too clever by half’ is a distinct insult, Willetts is unabashed about his intellectualism. Tucked away on another groaning bookshelf is a tome that lives up to his ‘two brains’ reputation: The Geek Manifesto.
But Willetts, a longstanding member of the One Nation group of Tory MPs, is unimpressed by the new geek on the block, Ed Miliband, and his attempted land grab of Disraeli’s credo.
“I don’t think it’s credible, and you can only carry it off if you’re serious about it, if you live it, and I don’t think he does live it or believe it. As a Conservative, I’m sort of comfortable with the instincts and common sense of the British people. I don’t think the British people have got a terribly mistaken set of attitudes which somehow need to be reformed by government, and I think part of Ed Miliband’s problem is that he is trying to push the centre-ground left from where it genuinely is.”
On the flip side, if Miliband really is pushing to the left, can the Conservatives make a renewed claim on the centre ground? Does he think it’s unfair that the party has been portrayed as subcontracting their compassionate edge to the Lib Dems?
“Yes, I very much agree with that”, Willetts replies. “Sometimes this media narrative, of the Coalition as always as a set of Liberal Democrat measures and a set of Conservative measures, and the Conservative measures are by and large seen as, if you like, the kind of more hard edged ones, isn’t how Government works.
“Sitting on the inside, on Cabinet committees or at Cabinet, there aren’t two organised groups endlessly arguing about every specific issue, and the Coalition is a shared project. It’s very important that we don’t get into a position where some are seen as Liberal Democrat measures and some are seen as Conservative measures.”
Indeed, Willetts sometimes seems more at home in Vince Cable’s company than some of his own party. He and the Secretary of State often car-share to get home: he’s dropped off at Shepherd’s Bush and his boss goes on to Twickenham. “In the evening after the 10 o’clock vote, Vince and I will share. It’s good to have that kind of more relaxed kind of political gossip in the car. Often it’s the first time during the day when it all makes sense. Suddenly you do sort of work out what you’ve been doing and why.”
As for seeing things clearly, the minister can rather literally claim to have better 20-20 vision these days. After years of sporting a pair of marvellously bookish glasses, he had laser eye treatment that left him spec-free. But with Michael Gove and even Jack Straw recently re-adopting rather trendy eyewear, has he missed the zeitgeist?
“It’s not the first time I’ve failed to read the zeitgeist,” he laughs. “Why did I do it? There were lots of reasons. But one practical reason, I’m not claiming it was the only reason, was I am quite a keen swimmer and I had reached a stage where I had got prescription goggles which were a real bore. I like open water swimming and it’s so much better if you can actually see what you are doing. So as well as the inevitable male middle aged vanity and middle aged crisis there was also a practical reason for doing it as well.”
Bookish, practical, clear-sighted. His fans will say that’s the Willetts way. Maybe he ought to write a book on it.
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