Willetts defends policies in front of academics at British Academy

David Willetts, the government minister behind the new university funding framework, has strongly defended the Coalition’s new policy at a panel discussion at the British Academy.

Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, spoke alongside Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK and Professor Jonathan Bate, Provost of Worcester College and Vice-President (Humanities) of the British Academy.

Defending the government’s policy was never going to be easy in front of academics at the country’s leading institution in Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) – whose teaching grants from the public purse have been axed from next year. Caught up elsewhere, Mr. Willett’s arrival twenty minutes late did little to appease his audience.

Bate opened proceedings and stressed that Humanities and Social Sciences were not in fact being unjustly targeted. The new system, he said, was “based on cost, not subject”. This meant that other subjects such as Business Studies and Maths, which require less teaching funds than other largely scientific subjects, were suffering similar cuts as HSS.

He criticised the “utilitarian” focus of higher education which has emerged in the past half century, “in which only employability is considered”, and suggested that the new system “wrongly supposed that the business part of human affairs is the whole of them”. However, had Willetts been there, he would have been happy to hear Bate blame the Civil Service, rather than politicians, for these faults.

Dandridge continued by showing preliminary modelling for the effects which the new system may have on applications, suggesting that there was “grounds for optimism”. Noting that there has recently been “heightened interest in open days”, she also suggested that so far HSS applications are down no more than in other subjects. However, she insisted that access schemes and geographical distribution must be closely monitored in the coming years.

Willetts began defensively, stating that “in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences we have tried to be scrupulously neutral between the different disciplines”. He laid down the facts of the new framework, in which around £4,000 has been taken away from every teaching grant and converted into fees.

This means that a degree such as medicine, previously on over £13,000, now receives £9,000. Band D subjects – which include the majority of HSS disciplines – were previously on only £2,300, and thus now receive nothing. However, WIlletts believes that since £4,000 extra will come from fees, the HSS subjects are in fact better off, receiving a total of £9,000 now rather than the previous £5,700.

Realising that few faces seemed convinced in the audience, Willetts stated that funding has been ring-fenced for research bodies and institutions such as the British Academy, which in fact has received a modest increase in its grant. He claimed to understand academics’ concerns, but stressed that, as a politician, finance was a necessary concern.

A lively debate followed in which several academics and university undergraduates challenged Willetts.

However, by the end of the session, several academics claimed that they had been partly convinced. Professor Ian Roberts, from Cambridge University, said that despite being from “the opposite end of the political spectrum” he found “much of what [Willetts] said rather reasonable.”

Along with other senior government members, including key Liberal Democrats, Willetts became the political face of the new higher education fees last year and has received opprobrium from sections of students and academics. In June, academics at Oxford passed a no-confidence vote in the minister. A month later, Cambridge narrowly failed to pass a similar motion after an exact tie in voting. Willetts was forced to abandon a talk in Cambridge last month after twenty student protesters disrupted it.