David Willetts is the minister of state for universities and science, within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, attending cabinet rather than a full member.

Known as ‘two brains’, he is one of the Conservative Party’s big thinkers .  There is nobody in the Parliamentary party who has a better grasp of the history of the party  nor of  the development of conservative thinking over the years.   He  was a visiting Professor of the Cass Business schools and a Board member of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and  Economic Adviser to Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein.

He was Shadow secretary of state for education (Dec 2005 – Jul 2007) but was shunted sideways in the July 2007 reshuffle after a bitter row over the party’s policy on grammar schools. Some colleagues felt he was harshly treated. He is popular within the Parliamentary party . He was given little credit  for putting  in place many of the ideas for supply side reforms, picked up by his successor Michael Gove , which turned into the free schools initiative.

A former Treasury civil servant and graduate of the Number 10 policy unit at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s time in office, he subsequently became director of research for the right of centre think tank the  Centre for Policy Studies. After his election to the Commons in 1992, he enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks before being criticised for his role as a whip during the Neil Hamilton cash-for-questions investigation.  He was a Government whip (Jan 1994 – Jan 1995) then Paymaster general (Jan 1996 – Jan 1996).  In opposition, he served as shadow education and employment secretary under William Hague before taking on the work and pensions job. He briefly dallied with a party leadership bid in 2005 before throwing his weight behind David Davis. After losing his Shadow Education portfolio he became Shadow Skills Minister.

He has said that he wants nothing less than the transformation of the skills landscape, so it is demand driven  based on FE college autonomy, strong lines of accountability  and placing power in the hands of learners. Like Gove, he has a particular focus on the most disadvantaged and the NEETS category of young people ,pointing out that   the number of young people aged under 25 who are long-term unemployed has grown by 66% over the last year and some people have predicted it will triple by 2011.  He wants to focus particularly on those young people who are losing out most in the recession.  Not just people aged 16 and 17, who are staying in education in greater numbers but to ensure new opportunities are there for all those aged under 25, who need support. He claims that compared to our international competitors, we are not good at providing smooth transitions to adulthood. The Tories Skills Green proposed refocusing much of the Train to Gain budget on apprenticeships. He wants 300,000 new apprenticeship, training and FE colleges places over the next two years. He wants to rationalise the quangos and funding regime and to move away from the current approach of more target-setting in Whitehall, more quangos and more red tape that, in his view, saps frontline provision. Instead, he wants to deliver a new compact between the centre and training providers of all types.  He is a keen supporter of Further Education and he believes that the sector has generally responded quickly to shifting demands. He is attracted by the idea of strong local institutions acting as glue in the local community but wants the sector to answer to learners and employers more directly, not bureaucrats.

He wants FE colleges to have clearer lines of accountability.   He wants a more demand driven system to boost the power of individual learners. Recent reports suggest learning accounts can help to improve the quality and relevance of the training on offer.

But a demand led system, in order to work, needs to ensure that learners can make informed decisions, so he wants better independent and professional advice and guidance. He said “We believe that much better careers advice is a necessary prerequisite for colleges to flourish, for independent learners to make informed choices and for learning accounts to work effectively. So we are committed to an independent all-age careers service, which the international evidence suggests is by far and away the most effective delivery model.” He points to the evidence that suggests that the current system is not providing young people with the advice and support they need. The system appears to be deteriorating rather than improving: only 55% of young people had a formal Career Action Plan meeting with a careers advisor or teacher last year, compared to 85% in 1997; and only 51% completed more than five days work experience, compared to 69% in 1997. Under the current system providers have received conflicting messages and inconsistent funding. So Willetts wants a new settlement for further education which must include a level playing-field for all providers. He proposes to take the existing funding formula as our starting point, but then to develop a system that ensures resources respond to demand from below rather being tied down from above. He proposes giving each college or training provider an allocation based on a set number of students at a set price per student, based on past provision. This will be administered by a new Further Education Funding Council that will be a funding agency, not another planning body. At the heart of this proposal is a new arrangement that lets colleges trade any unused numbers with other providers online.  He wants to significantly rationalise the system of publicly-funded improvement organisations (Quangos). The UK Commission for Employment and Skills has recommended all improvement organisations should be merged into one body. And he warms to this idea.

He will press for early legislation to establish a further education funding council to replace the recently created skills and young people’s agencies.  He wants to move fast before the new Skills Funding Agency and the Young People’s Learning Agency, launched on April 1, have a chance to “put down roots”. He wants a simpler system with a single funding agency and a per capita funding formula (with the obvious weightings) and flexibility for in-year transfer of funds.” He has underlined the party’s commitment to apprenticeships with a promise to do more to help small and medium-sized companies take on apprentices and to help all companies take on older apprentices. “There is a real problem of companies being reluctant, especially in the 19 to 24 range. We will divert some of the money in Train to Gain to pay for this,” he has said.

On qualifications-he will drop the more academically focused Diplomas and reform the remainder to ensure rigour and easier delivery. He will seek more employer and guild participation in the design of vocational qualifications to ensure that they are relevant to the needs of the workplace and he is a supporter of the new vocationally oriented Baker schools. Willetts  fears , more generally, that vocational  qualifications  too often simply confirm what the student knows and can be too theoretical .They should  instead  help students  develop their skills and abilities   relevant to the work place, and  to  the appropriate  level .

On Higher Education Willetts doesnt approve of the 50%  access target adopted by the previous Government.On tuition fees  he is happy to await the recommendations of the Browne review but believes that if universities are allowed to raise fees there must be a quid pro quo. They should improve their performance and   accountability and the quality of service they  provide to students both academic and pastoral. Willetts is a one nation Tory and to the left of the party on social issues.

He pioneered the idea of Civic conservatism. He said “Civic conservatism, like free market economics, proceeds from deep-seated individual self-interest towards a stable cooperation. It sets the Tories the task not of changing humanity but of designing institutions and arrangements that encourage our natural reciprocal altruism.”  In short, it sounds  pretty similar to  the Big Society idea.


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