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David Willetts is trying to conjure away the dangers of higher education reform with the magic word 'choice'

There are many different kinds of magic trick, but for all of them, one technique is the most important: misdirection. Of the many practitioners of such magic, David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, is one of the best.

There are many different kinds of magic trick. Some require the use of cards; others balls and cups. But for all of them, one technique is the most important: misdirection. While your attention is fixed on the magician’s left hand, you don’t notice what is happening on the right. Of the many practitioners of such magic, David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, is one of the best. As far as I am aware he doesn’t do card tricks. But he does do misdirection, making you look one way when the real trick is happening elsewhere.

Here is Willetts, speaking on BBC Newsnight, appearing to make many thousands of pounds disappear:

“There’s been several references during the programme to ‘paying the fees’. Of course they are not going to ‘pay the fees’. The taxpayer is going to provide the money for students, of course then to pass the funds on to the university. No family is going to have to reach into their back pocket to pay for their child to go to university.”

Fees are going to increase from just over three thousand pounds to as much as nine thousand pounds (while in many cases universities will receive less than at present). I wrote about this recently in Britain Greet the age of privatised higher education. Now we can examine how the government wants to fool us into consent. Because the money is not demanded from the student up-front, Willetts believes he can make you think it doesn’t exist. Later he made the point this way: “It’s a contribution from the graduate. It’s not from the student,” as if, on graduating, students turn into entirely different people. The same sleight of hand is used by the salesman who promises you a car and thousands of pounds in ‘cashback’ without anything to pay on the day of sale. With one hand he tries to make you think that you are getting a free car and free money, while with the other he is preparing the high-interest loan agreement that will haunt you for decades.

On the same edition of Newsnight, Willetts explained to a student worried about the future quality of university teaching that the fees reform would make everything better. He explained:

“Our philosophy is that the money should come through the choices of the student…what I want to see is universities looking out and thinking what exactly is the teaching experience we offer our prospective students and how can we make sure that it is world-class so that students want to come to this university…they won’t be able to get money through quangos any more, they’ll only get it through the choices of students.”

There are several levels of misdirection in this market logic. Willetts implies that universities currently get money without having to get students, that they get it in some obscure and shadowy way, and that students have no choices about where to study. He also falsely implies that at present university teachers never have to think about what their students want and need. All of this is chaff to prevent us from noticing the historic shift in policy. Universities - under consistent attack for three decades and from all political parties – now take the final step across the Rubicon. With the removal of all national funding from the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and its drastic reduction in others, higher education in the UK has ceased to be a public good. It is now a wholly private and tradable commodity. That will be the case in Wales and Scotland just as much as in England, notwithstanding the fact that students in the devolved regions will receive funding for the fee increases.  

The choices that will be most enhanced by this are not those of the student, but rather those of investors in for-profit university education, who will soon have a lot more choice about where to put their money. Speaking at Oxford Brookes University in June of this year, Willetts proposed a “cost-effective means of spreading educational opportunity in straitened times”. Universities currently both teach and examine. Willetts’ proposal was to separate these out and to create “new institutions that can teach, but do so to an exam set externally”. That would mean that more FE colleges could teach degrees and that it would be easier to develop “non-traditional” higher education institutions that would provide a “real competitive challenge to universities”. As I have argued elsewhere, those “non-traditional” providers will be private and for-profit companies such as Apollo Inc. Their interest will lie in providing a cheap service, with a high and quick turnover of students. One can easily imagine these new institutions teaching to exams set by a for-profit qualifications agent, itself well motivated to provide assessments agreeable to institutions that want to appear as successful as possible.

On Newsnight, answering a question about the harsh impact of his reforms upon particular subject areas, Willetts said:

“We are not against social sciences. These are changes that operate fairly across all disciplines. I am not sitting in a government department – and nor is Vince Cable – trying to pick the subjects that students should do or trying to tilt the field against one discipline or in favour of another. What we believe in is well-informed choices by students”.

But Willetts does sit in a government department, thinking about exactly how those students will be informed. As he explained on November 3 to the readers of the Daily Mail, he plans to introduce a new system of “kite-marks” validating degrees and providing customers with the information they need to make a purchasing decision. These kite-marks will indicate how highly employers rate universities so that, as Willetts was quoted as saying, “At last, students will be able to see the courses that can get the jobs they aspire to and those that do not perform well”. This is a very particular way of determining the quality of education. The question it raises is not ‘Who will educate the educators?’ but ‘Who will assess the assessors?’

Waving his left hand, Willetts tells prospective students that they won't have to pay any money, will be free to choose whatever university they want and will be better informed about the products available. But with a wave of his right hand, he makes the public university disappear, invites a range of new interests to access wholly new income streams flowing out of the pockets of students and their families, and puts in place mechanisms by which the government set the criteria according to which universities will be judged.

Lots of things are wrong with our universities. The quality and the extent of teaching are variable. The system is under pressure from high numbers and low pay. University management is too often inexperienced and inept. Policy is driven by elite concerns to the detriment of most. Social, cultural and technological change have increased the number and the kinds of things there are to know, as well as the range of people that need to know them. Responding to all that needs careful thought. It needs a confident academic profession, thinking hard and engaging honestly in dialogue with other citizens.

But Willetts and Cable, Osborne and Cameron, have bypassed all that effort and controversy through the application of self-interested market dogma. They have begun building a higher education system that will make some people (probably people who don’t pay taxes in the UK) lots of money, at the same time as it gives governments new and important powers over the regulation of the content and form of university education. And they have done so while saying the magic words of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’. Hey presto. Watch out for their next trick. 

About the author

Alan Finlayson is Professor of Political and Social Theory at the University of East Anglia. His research is particularly concerned with the theory and practice of democratic politics, the study of political ideologies and also with political rhetoric. As part of a project supported by The Leverhulme Trust he has developed the website www.britishpoliticalspeech.org and is working to promote the theory, analysis and improved practice of political speech, oratory and argument in the UK.


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