Exclusive interview: David Willetts on fees, feminism and his new £30k King’s gig

David Willetts outside King's College London. Roar News / Johnny Tam

THE man responsible for the most hated policy in the student movement has been handed a job at King’s – for £30k a year, one day a week.

But top Tory David Willetts – responsible for trebling tuition fees – insists he’s got the students’ best interests at heart.

Walking down Kingsway, wearing a flat cap and cheerfully posing with copies of Roar, the newly appointed King’s professor doesn’t fit the nasty party stereotype.

He received a “flurry” of offers from other universities, but David Willetts accepted a position at the King’s Policy Institute last November as a Visiting Professor.

Despite being a controversial figure with students, he’s still keen to get involved with teaching: “I’m not sure I’m going to be unleashed on undergraduates, but if there’s something I can do in seminars for masters or PhD students, yes I would be very keen to do that!”

‘Strengthened our unis’

Part of the idea behind the appointment is to advise Principal Ed Byrne on his strategy for King’s, as well as connecting up research at King’s with policy makers in Government.

“I suspect that there are people beavering away in labs in King’s where the full significance of what they’re doing may not be appreciated in Whitehall, even though its only half a mile away.”

News of Willetts’s appointment prompted a “Boycott Willetts” campaign on campus and nationally he is a hate-figure for students protesting against the marketisation of education.

Roar News / Johnny Tam

Asking him how this atmosphere has affected him, he says: ‘Well I’ve lived with this for years, and I am absolutely clear in my own mind that what we have done has strengthened our universities in an age of austerity and is a fair deal for students.”

He even extends out an invitation to those that oppose his appointment: “Providing we can have a rational discussion, if a group of student union representatives want to come and have a conversation and discuss with me whatever their concerns are, I would love to meet with them.”

Talking about the trebled fees over coffee, he claims: “The benefit for students is more funding and that should feed through into less crowded seminars, improved academic feedback, more staff being recruited.”

“That’s what I want and expect the reforms to deliver and the universities have the funding to make it possible.”

“Value for money”

It’s impossible to believe that these supposed benefits are felt by King’s students when our student satisfaction limps in at a pathetic 111th in the country.

With that image of Nick Clegg still burnt onto the student psyche, Willetts’s plan to treble tuition fees was met with dozens of violent protests.

The freshly formed coalition assured students that unis could not charge the full £9,000 if they failed to provide “value for money”.

So I ask if my not uncommon four hours of contact time a week is value for money. In fact, I ask him four times, because he avoids the question.

“I think students and their student unions should press energetically for the student to get back the full value of the funding that goes into their education.”

With £1,000 of the fees going towards bursaries and access schemes, Willetts said: “Students are entitled to say to their academic staff you’ve got about £8,000 to educate me and you’ve got to show to me that I’m getting £8,000 worth of education in return.”

‘Consumerists’

Willetts favours tuition fees over a graduate tax because he believes that when students know exactly how much they are paying, they act more like consumers and make greater demands of their universities.

He claims: “They’re not just consumers, but I want them to be consumerist.”

Making these demands is a job for student bodies, like Union academic committees, he says.

Willetts argues it’s the students’ responsibility to confront their heads of department and ask what that their money is being spent on: “Show us what the £8,000 is buying. That is a completely legitimate question and I support students for asking it.”

Many people have argued that average student debt reaching £42,000 puts off students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.

Willetts argues that the details of his policy in fact make the new system “a very progressive policy that improves social mobility.”

He claims all parties support the premise of a graduate repayment scheme because this system means “you can spread opportunity because you are no longer rationing places [and] have an open system where everyone a university thinks they can educate gets a place.”

Contrary to most predictions, the number of students going to university from financially disadvantaged backgrounds has slowly increased since the policy was enforced in 2012.

He argues that this shows that students understand that they do not have to pay any fees upfront.

Roar News / Johnny Tam

When confronted with the fact that people eligible for free schools meals are half as likely to go to university, Willetts admits the gap is still “unacceptable.”

“Expecting graduates who are in well paid jobs to contribute to the cost of higher education I think is fair and progressive.”

Whilst students will be paying off debts longer, they won’t start until they’re earning over £21,000 – a higher repayment threshold than the previous Labour government’s policy.

But most students – a predicted 78% – won’t pay back their loans in full, meaning that the policy could be more costly than the old regime.

Regardless of the lasting impact of his policy, it’s yet to be seen whether the elections in May will bring any significant change to the graduate repayment scheme.

For better or worse, David Willetts will have a defining influence on our higher education system for years to come.

Feminist? I hope so

WILLETTS? A feminist? Yes, I hope so, he said – just three years after he blamed half a century of low social mobility on “the feminist revolution”.

He told Roar he wasnít against feminism, but that the expansion of education to middle class women had been faster than expansion to those from working class backgrounds.

He claimed: “The university educated women, married the university educated men, and the gap in household income between those households and other households becomes wider.”

“I’m completely in favour of women having education and employment opportunities, but that just seems to be empirically that’s what happened,” he added.

This interview appeared in the February edition of Roar, available on campus now.

How it appeared in the February edition / Roar News

1 Comment

  1. Julian Riches

    23 February, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    May we learn what the King’s Departments which voted to condemn Willetts and his policies in 2010 think of this unadvertised appointment?

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