David Willetts under attack

Tristram Fane Saunders - Editor 22 January 2013

Senior Conservative MP Brian Binley, the vice-chair of the Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee, has lashed out against David Willetts’ stance on university applications. Binley has suggested that Willetts’ policies show a “latent snobbishness”, and blamed “David Willetts perpetuating authoritarian, elitist fantasy” through his “weird fixation” on improving university access.

Binley’s comments were sparked by a statement made by Willetts earlier this month, in which the universities minister suggested that the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) should “look at white, working class boys” as one of a number of “disadvantaged groups” to target for improved access schemes (see ‘Give the boys a chance,’ TCS, 11 January 2012). Willetts’ statement was made partly in response to the predicted fall in applications reported in UCAS’ interim figures earlier this year. According to UCAS, 10% fewer male school-leavers are applying to university than their female contemporaries.

Willetts has previously expressed concern about the widening gender gap in university applications.

OFFA, the university access watchdog, has also been criticised by Binley. In a post on his official website, Binley attacked OFFA for its “pompous, ill-informed interjections” about “this or that favoured group.” Though OFFA is officially an independent public body, Willetts was responsible for hiring its current head, Les Ebdon, amidst a storm of controversy last year.

Ebdon had previously been vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, during which time he received a great deal of criticism from the right-wing press; the Daily Mail described Bedfordshire during Ebdon’s tenure as “one of the country’s WORST universities”, and labelled Ebdon “the man who wants to dumb down Britain.” Despite the BIS committee firmly rejecting Ebdon’s proposed appointment at the time, Ebdon was made director of OFFA in February 2012.

In his statement, Binley uses ironic inverted commas to refer to Willetts as “the ‘universities’ minister” (sic), and follows a comment on the importance of “raising individual aspirations” with the afterthought, “little wonder Willetts doesn’t wish to tread this ground, methinks.” Part of the BIS committee’s function is to examine the policy of the department for which Willetts works as a minister of state. Cambridge students have expressed concern at Binley’s decision to criticise Willetts in this way. Jenny, a second-year English student from John’s, had this to say: “I stopped using sarcastic ‘quotes’ when I was twelve years old. He’s a grown man! It’s part of his job at BIS to offer a balanced analysis of the department. Why he is channelling his views through angry blog-posts is beyond me.”

Tristram Fane Saunders – Editor