Book review: A university education by David Willetts

Professor GR Evans finds much that is self-justifying and sometimes misleading in a new book by former universities and science minister David Willetts

David Willetts defends himself more than once about the purpose of this book. He dismisses the possibility that it is ‘just a heavily disguised ministerial memoir’ and claims on another page that it ‘is not a politician’s memoir’. Nevertheless, the reader has to disentangle several genres: history, a statement of political faith; an exercise in policy-planning for the future and – undoubtedly – the memoirs of a politician who had a significant role in some of the events he describes.

There is a great paradox at the heart of this book. David Willetts clearly loves universities. Indeed he says so in his very first sentence. But to anyone who has spent a working lifetime as an academic or a university administrator his illustrative snapshots have the look of the ‘politician’s anecdote’ rather than examples reflecting the realities of working and studying in universities. He admits to having faced a few student protests’ while he was ‘minister for universities and science’. The protesters were ‘usually well-intentioned young people’ who ‘just did not accept what I was trying to do or why’.

He has his prejudices and they affect his use of evidence. He makes many statements which make one want to add a footnote demonstrating the error. But he has his reservations about footnotes. ‘The footnote, for example, says that there is evidence which connects to or supports what one says’. However, ‘this scholarly apparatus can descend into pettifogging detail’.

Writing this book seems to have become quite a collaborative venture. Two research assistants, Dean Machin and Kathleen Henahan, are acknowledged for their help and Chris Wickham is named as one of the OUP’s ‘readers’ who acted as the book’s peer-reviewers. Adam Kamenetzky ‘helped research the history of British science policy’ which had been the subject of David Willetts’ inaugural lecture as a Visiting Professor at King’s College, London. For each section of the book there are further extensive acknowledgements of advice received, information provided, contacts, readers and comment.

The first section describes ‘the University’ from its medieval invention about 1200 (if we rate early Bologna as the mere Business School it probably was) to the realisation late in the nineteenth century that it was going to be necessary for the state to put in some funding. That conclusion became inescapable when universities ceased to be ‘teaching-only’ institutions and became ‘research-intensive’. On that topic Willetts writes encouragingly about the intentions of UK Research and Innovation, created under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 to take over the funding responsibilities both for an infrastructure of laboratories and libraries and for the projects bidding for specific support.

Then comes a set of chapters on ‘the Student’. In this section, Willetts opens with an explanation directly to prospective students why it is ‘worth going to University’, despite the tripling of tuition fees for which he was personally responsible as Universities Minister. On 13 December 2017, giving evidence to the Treasury Select Committee, he ‘pleaded guilty’ to the dramatic drop in part-time students which had resulted and said he regretted it, but the book was heading for the bookshops by then.

The third section of the book covers the ‘useful University’, with chapters on vocational higher education; higher education as a driver of innovation and ‘the University in the Marketplace’. Vocational education is treated very broadly, as a carpet-bag containing everything from the practical skill to the professional qualification. There is a confident but often historically misleading account of the ways in which universities down the centuries have engaged with the teaching subjects of not purely theoretical.

Writing about ‘Innovation’ Willetts casts a similar all-embracing net in an attempt to give an account of what he sees as a stand-off between academic research (done for its own sake) and the industrial and commercial application of discoveries. ‘I introduced a scheme’ ­– the ‘Research Partnership Innovation Fund’ – he writes. The chapter on the ‘marketplace’ discusses and seeks to justify the thinking behind the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, again sketching allegedly unsatisfactory attitudes in universities. For in universities ‘market values are thought to erode academic values by turning students into consumers’.

The book ends with a section on ‘the future’, with chapters on Globalization, ‘Edtech’ and a ‘Broader Education’ in which Willetts can roam freely but comparatively harmlessly among probabilities.

The book has been widely praised as a valuable addition to the literature on universities. That is true enough precisely because it is what it is: a politician’s attempt at justification in the face of the results of his own actions. The introduction is much better argued and more tightly organised than the discursive conclusion, but even here it is as though sometimes a burst of irritation has escaped and not been recaptured. Universities are able ‘to trade on their reputations to get away with inadequate teaching or the worst sort of picky scholasticism’. Those actually engaged in teaching and academic research may want to have a word with him about that.


A University Education

Author: David Willetts

Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2017

Price: £25

pp.x + 469.