It finally happened. After surviving a succession of reshuffles where most thought he was destined to leave the HE stage, David Willetts has finally taken his last bow as Minister of State for Science and Universities. He leaves with his head held high and the respect of most (if not all) of the higher education sector. This is some accomplishment –not many Ministers can claim to have maintained the regard Willetts has while introducing sweeping reforms. In some regards he was lucky, with the Lib Dems taking the biggest political hit for the increase in tuition fees, but no one can deny that he delivered for HE by securing ring-fenced funding for research in the midst of austerity. It also helps that he is an incredibly decent, likeable man with a genuine passion for his brief.
Willetts does however leave behind a number of difficult issues for his successor to deal with. The student funding settlement looks far from sustainable and will probably have to be revisited before long; the regulatory architecture of HE is not yet fit for the needs of a mixed economy of providers and uncapped student numbers; and the thorny issue of international student visas continues to bedevil the sector. Greg Clark’s hands are going to be full.
Despite all of that, we may find that Clark achieves Willetts-like respect by shifting gears on a point of ideological emphasis that was not universally bought into. In crude terms, Willetts’ great vision was for more empowered students excising consumerist power over a responsive sector. This meant the aforementioned diversification of provision and deregulation of student numbers, as well as the provision of simple quality metrics on things like contact hours and employment prospects. To many, this instrumentalist vision was to the detriment of good higher education, with the relationship between student and institution reduced to a simple set of transactions. There was also a belief that this student-centric vision of HE failed to adequately recognise the importance of research – despite the funding ring-fence. This is where Greg Clark could draw a line in the sand.
In addition to Universities and Science, Clark retains the local growth and cities responsibility he held at the Cabinet Office, signalling more than ever that the Government sees the fates of universities and the economy entwined. They are right to do so, with the most recent UUK figures showing that universities make substantial contributions to all of the English regions. Maximising this contribution is likely to be the focus of Greg Clark’s time in office.
This means more attention given to research impact, greater interest in knowledge transfer partnerships, and stronger focus on university collaborations with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Witty Review taken out of the drawer. Universities that can adopt a strong position in relation to this agenda could do well over the next year.
Where David Willetts famously wanted to put students at the heart of the system, Greg Clark is going to put universities at the heart of the economy.