A University Education by David Willetts

David Willetts has written a rather unusual love letter. The first words in his book are “I love universities”, and a vein of suppressed passion runs through the next 372 pages.

He also touches on his experiences as Minister for Universities and Science, though as he remarks on page 361, “even if one might suspect this is just a heavily disguised ministerial memoir, it is at least the first example which has been subject to academic peer review”.

As that wry remark suggests, he wants us to enjoy ourselves. He knows educational jargon is unbearable:

“Ministers can sound utilitarian and reductionist and unsympathetic because even when we love universities we do not express it. The White Paper I was responsible for in 2011 had some pretty dreadful bureaucratic prose and the tone of its successor in 2016 was if anything worse – appearing not to appreciate the autonomy of the university and just treating higher education as another failing public service which should spend taxpayers’ money better… I did plan a chapter for the 2011 White Paper on the value of the university. It could have been a fruity, claret-soaked Oakeshottian prose poem to these great institutions… But the only significant comment from No. 10 on the draft was to remove that chapter – they wanted a crisp and action-oriented document. There is no place for belles-lettres in modern Government.”

Nor is there much place for belles-lettres in Willetts’s book. The love letter never quite fulfils its early promise. The lover is respectable, and prefers policy to poetry. His appeal is to the head rather than to the heart.

This is a vast pity, for he has the ability to reach out and pluck the right quotation from Confucius, Cardinal Newman, Dean Gaisford, David Hume, Lord Curzon, Sydney Smith, Einstein, Homer Simpson and a host of others.

Willetts is versed in the German and American literature as well as the best things which have been written in Britain. The Germans invented the research university, the Americans carried it forward by investing prodigious sums of public money in such institutions and their associated technology clusters, and Willetts is always good at finding the illuminating comparison from another country or another age.

He opens with a chapter of history. Of the 85 institutions in the Western world which were established by 1520 and still exist in recognisable form today, about 70 are universities, with Bologna, supposed to have been founded in 1088, the oldest.

Oxford began in 1167, when Henry II banned English students from going to study in Paris, which was too closely associated with Thomas Becket; Cambridge in 1209, by a group of scholars who seceded from Oxford.

And then, rather extraordinarily, for over 600 years no new universities were created in England, until in 1829 University College London was founded by Jeremy Bentham as a secular, fee-based alternative to the jealously guarded Oxbridge duopoly:

“UCL was what we would now call an alternative provider and the abuse it encountered was similar to what we hear today. Setting it up and financing it by fees was particularly shocking. Coleridge denounced it as a mere ‘lecture bazaar’. Thomas Arnold called it ‘that godless institution in Gower Street.’ It was not allowed to call itself a university and one newspaper columnist said it was ‘a humbug joint-stock subscription school for Cockney boys, without the power of granting degrees or affording honours or distinctions, got up in the bubble season’.”

Willetts tells this history for a purpose. He wishes to show there is an inbuilt tendency by academic institutions to resist reform, dismiss new competitors as mere commercial ventures, and if possible strangle them at birth.

And he wishes, as tactfully as he can, to say how wrong this is. For him the great expansion of university education which has taken place since the Second World War is a wonderful thing, and should continue, for it has transformed millions of lives. And it would be absurd and narrow-minded to suppose new institutions must simply ape the manners and education offered by Oxbridge.

So he takes on Kingsley Amis, who in a famous essay in 1960 asserted that “MORE will mean WORSE”, and in Lucky Jim – surely to this day the greatest comic novel set in a provincial university – suggested students who were simply not up to it were being admitted to these new institutions, which then had a vested interest in covering up illiteracy.

As Willetts points out, Lucky Jim was published in 1954, when 3.4 per cent of the population went to university, and even in 1960 the proportion was only five per cent:

“Amis clearly believed the rot had set in by 1954. Today’s sceptics are often rather keen on the 1950s, whereas Amis is saying that things were bad even then, in the days of grammar schools and before Robbins… Nor did the creation of universities like Warwick and York in the early 1960s cause a descent into barbarism as Amis feared. If Amis was wrong then it is quite possible the same argument is wrong now.”

Willetts goes on to mount a stout defence of the idea of a market in higher education, and of student fees, pointing out that these have not discouraged working-class applicants. It is reliance on public funding that leads to rationing: a truth borne out by the Scottish experience, but also by the training of doctors in England, which is so restricted that many perfectly good candidates are unable to obtain places.

Carved in stone outside Heriot-Watt University, Willetts tells us, is Alex Salmond’s statement: “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.”

In Scotland, the proportion of young people from the lowest-income fifth of the population going to university has risen from 7.3 per cent in 2011 to 9.7 per cent in 2015, but in England it has gone up from 13.8 per cent to 17 per cent over the same period.

There is a large amount of such information in Willetts’s book: too much to make it entirely attractive to the general reader. The policy wonk buries the lover of learning and beauty and jokes. He makes a strong case for a much wider education at the A-level stage, and says this should be the next big education reform.

And he celebrates the international pulling power of our universities, wants this to increase and urges his successors to go on expanding:

“The Golden Triangle of Oxford/Cambridge/London has a strong claim to be one of the world’s great innovation clusters. There is, however, growing competition from hot areas of Europe, around, for example, Switzerland’s excellent universities, and increasingly in China around Peking and Tsinghua Universities in Beijing and also Shanghai. To gain the greatest benefit from them, Oxford and Cambridge should already be much bigger cities than they are: it is a responsibility they cannot escape, especially as we saw in Chapter One that their prestige and status comes partly from centuries of blocking universities elsewhere. The biggest single constraint is planning – especially in Oxford. There is an outrageous agreement between Oxford University and the city council which limits the number of students who will be placed in private rented accommodation, and so if the university or a college wishes to expand they have to build their own new accommodation first.”

“Outrageous” is a strong word for this author, but since it has been peer-reviewed, one supposes Oxford University Press knows what it is doing.

For his next book, could Willetts write something much shorter and more personal? Few politicians have managed that, or thought it might be desirable.