David Willetts: Sunak’s Mais lecture, Ministers’ Augar response – and a better approach to universities

1 Mar

David Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He was Minister for Universities and Science 2010-2014. His book A University Education is published by OUP.

The invasion of the Ukraine and its heroic resistance is of course dominating our thinking. As David Gauke pointed out yesterday on ConservativeHome, this has diverted attention from the Chancellor’s Mais Lecture, which set out his economic strategy more clearly than any Budget which inevitably has to focus on specific measures.

On the same day Nadhim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan set out a higher education and skills package which complemented the Chancellor’s approach. Together, they add up to a coherent strategy for the public finances and also boosting productivity.

The case for the education package is simply that graduates earn more than non-graduates and it makes sense for graduates to pay back for their higher education provided they can afford it. This is the moment to quote Karl Marx – as I used to do at meetings with the National Union of Students. He objected to a plan from the German Social Democrats for taxpayers to fund higher education because: “[if] higher education institutions are also ‘free’, that only means in fact defraying the cost of education of the bourgeoisie from the general tax receipts”.

Theresa May ignored his wise words, and increased the repayment threshold above which graduates start paying back, so that half of graduate debt was going to be written off by taxpayers. That is far too much.

Phil Augar was commissioned by May to look at reforms to the system. Ironically, his main proposed reform is to reverse her own increase in the threshold, and extend the repayment period so that now only about 20 per cent of graduate loans will be written off. I always envisaged that the typical graduate should expect to pay back in full and that taxpayers should only help those who for whatever reason had unusually low earnings. The package very persuasively explained by Michelle Donelan in her piece on this site last Thursday gets that balance right.

It will not just get the public finances back on track. I hope it also provides an opportunity to get the whole Tory approach to higher education back on track. Many young people and their parents aspire to go to university – all of us out canvassing have seen the photograph of the child or grandchild in graduation robes on the mantlepiece. But Conservatives seemed to be getting into a mind-set that universities are the enemy.

I suspect many readers of ConservativeHome believe that over 50 per cent of young people going is too large a proportion. Indeed, I am surprised how often I am told it must have happened because we in the Coalition slavishly followed Blair’s target.

But I never believed in any such target. It has happened because of millions of personal choices – and carried on increasing, despite our making it clear that, as graduates, they would usually have to pay back for the cost of their university education in full. Participation is also over 50 per cent in countries like USA and Australia with relatively flexible labour markets and fewer protections for big industrial employers. It is not some eccentric English experiment.

Opinion surveys show very few young people regret going to university, though more do come to regret their choice of subject – and there the problem is early specialisation.

If too many people are going to university then this social problem is most acute in prosperous Tory constituencies where participation is over 60 per cent – such places as Wimbledon, Hitchen and Harpenden, Rushcliffe and Tatton. By contrast, my former constituency of Havant had low rates of young people going to university. I could see that if the only way for more young people from the tough council estate in my constituency to get a place was for fewer to go from Chelsea or Beaconsfield, then they were in for a long wait.

That is why I am against number controls. The Government is now consulting on some specific ones, but I think it would be very hard to make them work effectively and fairly.

Do all these graduates then become Labour voters? Just occasionally Tories, get close to Trump’s notorious remark that ‘I love the poorly-educated’. Three years of higher education does change people. Graduates are more liberal and individualistic. The more education they receive, the more likely they are to create their own businesses – doctorates are increasingly a route to a tech start-up not to academia.

Graduates have better health and longer life expectancy – not because they are somehow better people, but because of the effects of access to higher education. They are more tolerant of alternative views and more likely to vote. They are more more sceptical of the state. Whenever I met students, they were not focused on destroying capitalism: instead, they were unhappy that it took so long to get their essays back and that wifi coverage on campus wasn’t very good. Even the Woke agenda did not preoccupy them – though it is a serious issue which I hope to turn to in a future column.

The real political problem for Conservatives is not graduates, but young people in general, whether they go to university or not. A graduate earning £28,000 shouldn’t be turned into a socialist because she has to pay back £17 a month. What does turn them away from us is the retreat from the property-owning democracy. It is the difficulty of getting started on the housing ladder and the lack of any kind of company pension matching the one their parents got for themselves.

Ministers rightly want more adult learning and more vocational education – it was a key theme of the Mais Lecture. That must be right. But universities as well as FE College are key agents for this. More than half of university courses are vocational. There is the exciting new initiative of higher apprenticeships, but there are many other ways in which university courses link with employers – from being accredited by employer groups through to including a sandwich year in industry. Many doctoral students are now co-funded by employers and tackle a research problem directly relevant to an innovative company.

The Chancellor identified skills, investment and R&D as his three main routes to boosting the real economy. Universities are key to all three. I include investment because a lot of overseas investment comes from companies attracted by the quality of our universities for their recruitment and business innovation.

There have been times over the past few years when our party was in danger of becoming hostile to universities and the young people and their families who aspired to go. But last week’s two important statements boost my hopes that we are getting out of that dead-end. The real battles as we can see this week are so very different.

David Gauke: Demographic changes in the Blue Wall will work against the Conservatives – they must pay close attention

12 May

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

This is a bit of a postscript to my article from Saturday. In the unlikely event of you not having read it (or that you are not going to rectify this unfortunate omission before proceeding to read this article), in summary I said that the election results were very good for the Conservatives with evidence of a vaccine bounce (the incumbents also did well in Scotland and Wales).

Furthermore, there was a political realignment in English politics that made it easier for the Conservatives to win general elections. A divide along cultural grounds, rather than economic or class grounds, left the Tories’ opponents split and their votes inefficiently distributed.

At the time of writing, we had seen some of the details of how Leave areas were swinging towards the Conservatives (most spectacularly in Hartlepool) but had not seen that much from the Conservative Remain areas, mostly in the south of England.

Now that we have got these results, the data shows that Remain areas are behaving very differently to Leave areas – large swings to the Conservatives in Leave areas, very small swings in Remain areas.

I thought I would take a look at two county council divisions in my old constituency of South West Hertfordshire. Berkhamsted is an attractive and prosperous market town. It is the type of place to which young professionals move from London when starting a family and then never leave.

As is not uncommon in Home Counties constituencies, the Conservatives have generally done better here in general elections than local elections, but Berkhamsted has always returned a Conservative county councillor (except in 1993 when the Conservative vote collapsed across the country), although not always comfortably.

In the last six elections, the Conservative candidate achieved between 40 and 45 per cent of the vote with the size of the majority varying depending up how the other parties’ votes were distributed. In 2016, the ballot boxes from Berkhamsted contained a large majority of Remain votes.

South Oxhey & Eastbury was a new county division which narrowly elected a Labour councillor in 2017.  It is made up of two contrasting areas. Eastbury is affluent Middlesex suburbia and solidly Conservative, but the bulk of the division is made up of a post-War London overspill council estate that has always voted solidly Labour (apart from 2009 when it infamously elected the BNP’s only ever county councillor). South Oxhey voted overwhelmingly for Brexit (“hardly any Remain votes at all” one of the counters told me on the night).

When Thursday’s results were announced, South Oxhey & Eastbury went blue with an eight per cent swing from Labour to Conservative which, looking at the district council elections, seems to have been the consequence of a strong Tory surge in South Oxhey. Meanwhile, in Berkhamsted there was a swing of 12 per cent from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats, reducing the Tory share of the vote to a record low of 30 per cent.

Admittedly, local factors are relevant (there is an unpopular local plan), but the Berkhamsted experience of affluent commuter area deserting the Conservatives was replicated elsewhere in the constituency in Three Rivers Rural and elsewhere in the county in Harpenden, Hitchin, Hemel Hempstead, Bishop’s Stortford and Hertford (all to the Liberal Democrats apart from Hertford which went Green). Looking outside Hertfordshire, places with similar demographics in Surrey, Sussex, Kent, Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire did much the same.

Is this an immediate problem for the Conservatives? Taken in the round, probably not. The Liberal Democrats tend to over-perform in local elections compared to general elections. In individual constituencies, declines in some areas (such as Berkhamsted) were offset in part by advances in other areas (such as South Oxhey) – this is more complex than North versus South. And even if the realignment of British politics puts at risk affluent, well-educated, Remain-voting constituencies, there are far fewer of them than there are Labour Leave-voting seats that now look winnable for the Tories.

At a local level, however, there three reasons to be concerned. First, given that the electoral logic suggests that the Red Wall will be a bigger priority than the Blue Wall, Government policy will prioritise the Red Wall – if necessary at the expense of the Blue Wall (someone is going to have to pay for “levelling up”).

Second, demographic changes in these areas work against the Conservatives. The loyal Conservative vote is often quite elderly and the likely population increase will predominantly be newcomers from London. The pandemic is only likely to accelerate the process of these places becoming more graduate-heavy and small L liberal.

Third, a share of 40 per cent for a Government is very high. No doubt the vaccine rollout has made a big difference and, assuming the Conservatives will still be in office in 2025 (and not many are betting against that), achieving a similar share of the vote would be quite some achievement.

All of this suggests that the loss of a few southern seats on Thursday might not be a crippling wound for the Conservatives, but nor is this temporary.  The Tories will do very well to get many of these council seats back and there may be more to come.