David Willetts: Two Brains and No Clue

I must admit that one of my vices is to fulminate at newspaper articles that annoy me. I am generally a placid person, but I can only describe my reaction to certain articles as ‘the red mist’. The best thing I can compare it to are the scenes in Kill Bill where Uma Thurman sees an enemy of hers, and the screen flashes red with alarm-like music playing in the background.

This was my initial reaction yesterday to an article in the Guardian, reporting an interview with David Willetts, our new Education Secretary, and a man best known for his legendary nickname, ‘Two Brains’. Essentially, Willetts has called the system of student loans unsustainable, and dropped some pretty unsubtle hints that he would like to see the current loan system scrapped- and, by implication, replaced by a system where students have to take out support loans at commercial rates, and start paying them off immediately, rather than the current system, where they get a (slightly) lower rate, and only start to pay off loans after they start to earn £15,000 a year. I don’t need to tell you that the net result of this would be to drive out poorer students from the university system.

But on re-reading the article- with a little less anger in my veins- my more reasoned response was, “Eh?” Willetts says, “The so-called debt [students] have is more like an obligation to pay higher income tax.” I must admit, my student loan debt feels awfully like a debt to me. Sure, it doesn’t take cash out of my paycheck, but that’s for the very simple reason that I don’t currently have one. Moreover, my student loan is not accruing any interest- but that’s because it’s linked to interest rates, currently near zero per cent, not to what I earn. What Willetts means is that because the repayments of loans are linked to earnings, it sort-of-resembles an income tax bracket. But the logical solution to this, surely, is not to make a tax more regressive!

But the fact remains that, whilst Willetts’ logic has got extremely muddled, there is a problem with our university system. For what we have now is a mess of a university system, with no clear idea as to what it’s for. If Willetts really wanted to sort out university finance, there’s a number of fundamental questions he should look at first.

1) What is University for?

This may sound like a silly question, but there’s no agreed answer. Is university’s purpose to train students for work? Is it to give them a broad, ‘liberal’ education and the skills to live their lives? Is it even neither of the two, but simply a mechanism to teach 18-year olds how to live and work independently? I don’t have an answer to this, to be honest. I just don’t know enough about education policy to form an informed opinion. But in time, we do need to have a debate about this. But until then, we have two questions which do have more definite parameters and solutions.

2) Who should go?

Traditionally, UK universities were largely composed of the upper and upper-middle classes- and frankly, abolishing the current student loan system will bring this back pretty sharpish. This is probably the easiest question, in my opinion, to answer. In a stratified, 19th century style society, where a division of labour between classes was the norm, this system made more sense. But frankly, the ideal, if not the reality, of social mobility is one which is generally agreed to be beneficial, by all the major UK political parties. But if we can agree that, in theory, university should train the brightest people from any background, we come to the hardest question of all.

3) How many people should go?

This is the real sticking point. The Labour government entered power with the laudable aim of expanding access to education to people from poorer backgrounds. However, their solution was to try to widen the number of people going to university, up to their much-derided target of 50% of school leavers. The problem with this, of course, is that the government is saddled with millions of pounds of unrepaid loans- which in this time of fiscal crisis, is a major burden on the department, and which Willetts is quite right in trying to cut.

Willetts’ problems do actually come from the failures of the Labour government. You see, what they failed to recognise and implement, is that social mobility doesn’t just mean talented people rising up; it also means untalented people falling down the income and social scales. And frankly, this is something that we have a major problem with in this country. My upbringing is one of middle-class respectability; I went to a county grammar school. At the school, there was no argument about whether we should go to university once we left- the only question was where we should go. For example, one friend of mine who had his heart set on going into the army was still made to complete a UCAS form, even though he had no intention of going to university. The fact is, for social mobility to work, and for the number and therefore the cost of university students to be cut, middle-class parents and teachers have to realise that some people simply are not cut out for university, and will not benefit from it.

Can you really imagine a Tory education minister saying this? Er, maybe only if one of Willetts’ brains got a screw loose. Can you imagine a Liberal Democrat saying it either? I’d like to think so, but I don’t think that’s terribly likely, either. But if we were really honest about tackling the deficit incurred by education, in a way which didn’t turn back the clock on university access, this is what we would have to say.