Siphoning the contents of two brains through one mouth and on to a single page will
generally produce eclectic results. And that’s certainly the case with David Willetts’ interview with the Times
(£) this morning. The universities minister manages to range across subjects that include Robert Falcon Scott, climate change, the Falklands and universities access. He even reheats one
of his old theories about Feminism and social mobility in
a way that (coupled with the interview’s headline: ‘Moving on and up is very hard — and feminism is partly to blame’) makes it sound far more provocative than I think it’s meant
to be, and much weaker for it.
The most noteworthy part of the interview is Willetts’ defence of the appointment of Les Ebdon (profiled
the Mail today) as the universities ‘fairness tsar’. His basic position will, I’m sure, rile those Tories who already see this appointment as a dreadful mistake. ‘The select
committee’s power is not absolute,’ he says of the parliamentarians who tried to block Ebdon from getting the job. And he restates the notion — anthema to many in his own party
— that an access regulator is ‘critical to improving social mobility by widening the type of people who go to the best universities’.
But Willetts does also offer a crumb of solace to his party. Speaking of Ebdon’s threat to ban universities from charging more than £6,000 in fees if they do not meet certain ‘access
criteria’, he says, ‘That would be a real threat to our universities. Therefore it is not a power one would wish to see the head of Offa using.’ And he adds, intriguingly,
‘I am not going to defend the exact way [Ebdon] explained his job at select committee, it is clear they were concerned about his performance and he himself accepts that he didn’t
perform very well.’ But, like I say, that’s only a crumb of solace — and it could soon be swept away once Ebdon sets to work.
Besides, even putting Ebdon aside, the potential for further flare-ups over universities policy is high. It’s one of those areas of the coalition where, at a fundamental level, there’s very little
compatability between the Tories and the Lib Dems. On one side, a party that is still wary of tuition fees on principle. On the other, a party that "http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/6327571/Student-tuition-fees-could-increase.html">doesn’t necessarily see fees as an evil so long as they lead to a proper market in higher education. Now
stir as outspoken a character as Ebdon into that mix, and it could get even more combustible.