David, meet Michael


I spent some time yesterday evening with David Willetts, Shadow Secretary of State for Universities and Skills. I am a fan of David’s, finding him thoughtful, open minded and progressive. Indeed he was the respondent I chose for my second annual lecture. But having heard David speak about his views of higher education I wonder whether I should introduce him to another impressive Tory politician, Michael Gove. It is far from clear to me that they share the same world view.

Last night, at the dinner we were both attending, several people criticised the Government’s target of 50% of your people going into higher education. But David was eloquent in his support for the expansion of HE, even while recognising that levels of participation had gone up faster than levels of attainment. As well as saying that university has many advantages for young people in addition to gaining qualifications, he pointed out that the expansion had largely been in vocational areas and that about two out of three people at university are studying for a degree necessary for them to enter their career of choice. He also explicitly rejected the notion that the new degrees being taught in new universities were in ‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects.

This was music to my ears. At almost exactly the same time David was making his point at the dinner, I was using a very similar argument on this week’s Radio 4 Moral Maze.

But how are we to square David’s view with the thrust of Michael Gove’s lecture here last June. In referring to universities in his speech, the Conservative education spokesman spoke exclusively about the view of the elite Russell Group. He argued strongly against what he clearly saw as Mickey Mouse subjects and qualifications (although to be fair he didn’t use this phrase). Moreover, I interpreted the thrust of Gove’s speech that he was determined to raise the bar of academic attainment, something which would surely lead in the short term to lower levels of participation in higher education.

So, while David Willetts espouses a laissez faire, expansionary view of post compulsory education, his shadow cabinet colleague urges a return to a more rigidly defined set of subjects and content with progression capped by rising attainment requirements.

Perhaps there is a way of explaining this apparent tension but I’m afraid I’m not clever enough to understand it. I blame my school, or should it be my university?

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