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September 03, 2012

The price of Willetts

What if Cameron thought David Willetts needs a new job?

by Ehsan Masood

So will the prime minister move his highly-regarded universities and science minister, David Willetts, to fresh pastures in his first cabinet reshuffle? That is the question university vice-chancellors and other research-policy watchers are pondering as they return from summer holidays. And, if lthis fantasy really comes to pass then who will fill Willetts' shoes?

If the change is to take place one  option is for Cameron is to merge the universities portfolio with education. Now were that to happen, Michael Gove is the hot favourite to remain as secretary of state for an enlarged education department.

Gove, a former Times journalist has rapidly carved out a following on the Conservative right wing for mixing radical policies (such as free schools) with traditional views (supporting the return of O-levels and criticising grade inflation).

Gove has already veered into university-policy with a proposal for universities to take some responsibility in setting A-level standards. This proposal, which is being actively considered in universities, reflects another traditional idea (though from more than a century ago) when the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and London created schools examination boards and were involved in schools inspections.

Giving Gove an expanded brief brings benefits from the perspective of the emerging Conservative general election strategy. In contrast to the government’s first two years, each party’s core membership is asserting itself more, emphasising coalition differences and reassuring the 'base' that coalition politics hasn’t changed individual party aspirations.

For those on the Conservative right, those aspirations include a slimmed down business department (a long-cherished goal for some). At the same time Willetts’ respect and the stature he holds in the party could be deployed more effectively, from a political point of view, on a wider stage — such as at Conservative Party Central office, which could use his skills as a thinker and strategist.

A BIS sans universities and a diminished role for business secretary Vince Cable also has its attractions for Nick Clegg of course. It isn’t at all helpful to Clegg that on the eve of his party’s annual conference Vince Cable is being openly talked up as his successor.

Moving Willetts is far less of a good idea, however, if viewed from the perspective of of universities. He is well-liked, even by those who disagree with him, and clearly understands what matters in science and higher education. He clearly enjoys the job (a reluctant minister is of little use to anyone), gets on surprisingly well with Cable, and shares the latter’s desire to create stronger foundations for business innovation.

Perhaps to the irritation of his more right-leaning colleagues, Willetts doesn’t bang the immigration drum and has carefully steered clear of public involvement in the fiasco that has engulfed London Metropolitan University’s handling of its international students.

But politics being what it is, Willetts’ consensus-style approach and his popularity with the research world will count for little with Tory strategists thinking how to appeal to its core vote bank. There are few better ways to excite the hard right than to have Michael Gove appointed as secretary of state for education and science, an office once occupied by no less than Keith Joseph and his protégé, Margaret Thatcher herself. Exciting for them; a less than enticing prospect for the rest of us.

Fantasy politics? We'll know this week!

 

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