The Government wants to cut funding for all those who study for a second qualification, be it a degree or a lower qualification. Unsurprisingly the Open University, London’s Birkbeck College, the FE sector and almost everyone else in education is up in arms.
Over one quarter of OU students will be unfunded and the universities that do most, through part-time courses, distance and modular learning to provide opportunities for mature and disadvantaged learners will be hardest hit.
That’s why 85 outraged Labour MPs signed an EDM challenging the Government. The Tories – David Willetts in particular – had the wit to take that EDM unamended and make it their Opposition Day Motion.
David Willetts spoke impressively – appealing to the better judgment of Labour MPs:
"The Government are proposing that students who already have a degree qualification should not receive any support if they return to university. We are talking not about grants or loans, as the regime governing them is already much tougher for returning students, but about the removal of Higher Education Funding Council teaching support for any university that takes on returning students. For the first time, home students on approved courses at English universities will not get even a contribution towards teaching costs. They will be treated as though they were from China. That is an unprecedented shift in the pattern of higher education financing. I believe that such a decision should have been taken only after a serious review of its implications, and that it should have been considered alongside all the other issues connected with the future of university fees that legislation already requires us to look at in 2009."
Sixty of those Labour MPs who had signed the EDM voted against exactly the same words when they became the Tory ODM. They were all happy to play the gesture politics of EDMs but too frit to follow through.
David Willetts thus made the able and decent John Denham – Secretary of State for Higher Education and Skills – look foolish as Labour whips dragooned their colleagues to vote for a measure few really support. Even with all of the pressure, more than fifty Labour MPs abstained.
So, Tuesday was probably David Willetts’ finest day in his new role.
Mr Willetts’ admirers should also take comfort from the fact that much of Michael Gove’s agenda on supply-side diversity in education is drawn from Willetts’ analysis when he was the Tories’ schools guru. And many of Chris Grayling’s welfare-to-work policies were pioneered by David Willetts when he was Work & Pensions spokesman under IDS.
This week showed that David Willetts can be clever, not just brainy.