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How to read David Willetts’ speech to the Conservative Party conference

David Willets gave a speech to the Conservative Party conference today. It ranges pretty widely over his brief, and says a lot more than the slightly odd title given to it by the party’s website. What follows below is an annotated version of the speech, with my comments in red. I’m doing this with all the speeches from Willetts and Vince Cable, which are indexed. I’ll be digesting all this and summarising my thoughts in the next issue of Research Fortnight.


David Willetts: Scholarships to help Armed Forces families

Rt Hon David Willetts, Monday, October 4 2010

David Willetts

Here in Birmingham, where I was brought up, is the right place to focus on the big challenge of growth and prosperity.

OK. He’s got my number. The question of where the growths going to come from is, for me, the big one for this government.

The steam engines of Boulton and Watt, which drove the Industrial Revolution and changed the world, are still working just a few hundred yards from here – in a place called the Thinktank Museum, which is perhaps where Ill end up.

That’s good. I’m smirking.

They have gone from business tool to museum exhibit. Nowadays that shift happens faster than ever. I have seen the computer server which Tim Berners-Lee first linked to others to create the World Wide Web: that is a museum exhibit too. This is the pace of a modern economy. It is what drives future jobs and prosperity. It is what our party above all understands.

I like him even more.

When science, engineering and enterprise come together, you can change the world. But it does not always work out. At the same time as Boulton and Watt were designing steam engines, their friend Joseph Priestley successfully obtained oxygen and carbon dioxide from air. He did the experiments but it was a Swiss businessman who made money by using his technique to put fizz in water – he was called Joseph Schweppe.

And more. Are we now going to get the Conservatiuve philosophy on growth and hi-tech that weve been waiting for since the election?

That still happens today. That is why our universities should have closer links to industry. Here in the West Midlands, Warwick University is doing just that. I can announce Jaguar Land Rover will move their advanced research team to the Universitys own International Manufacturing Centre. We back initiatives like that. They bridge the barrier between research and business. They can crack that old British problem of failing to make the most of our own discoveries and inventions.

I like the bit about closer links. And Jaguar’s Warwick move is potentially interesting as an example of what can happen if you develop links between a university and a company over decades. But I suspect the move announced here is a way of cutting costs for Jaguar. Back in the spring the company warned it could move its R&D overseas if it lose tax breaks. This result has got to be better than that for UK PLC. But I suspect this announcement could still mean fewer researchers doing less here.

There is no reason why the scientist doing the research should also have a head for business. We have to liberate our scientists from the idea they are just cogs in an economic machine and give them space to think and experiment. But then they need the entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into successful businesses. They in turn need affordable finance, lower taxes and skilled workers. And governments can help or hinder at every stage: we cannot bake the cake but we sure can help with the ingredients.

Well this obviously isn’t the right audience for “absorptive capacity”. But I still wish he could have some up with something less linear.

Skilled workers are key. Labour shamefully downgraded apprenticeships. My colleague John Hayes is doing more than anyone to change all that. Since the election, we have set aside funding for an extra 50,000 apprenticeships. I can report to conference today that we are on track to meet that commitment. And many of them will be in key sectors, such as engineering, construction and manufacturing.

All good. Bolstering the vocational side is important.

We are achieving this by cutting back on the red tape which ties down companies offering apprenticeships. Here is how you were supposed to fund a young person in an apprenticeship under Labour.

First, the Treasury sent funding to the government Department.

Then, it passed the money to the Young Peoples Learning Agency.

It then asked each local authority how many apprentices they should fund.

The local authority was then supposed to consult the Connexions Service and the National Apprenticeship Service.

The local authority also had to take account of the Regional Development Agencys skills strategy and its own skills, regeneration and education strategies.

It then went back to the Young Peoples Learning Agency with its estimate of apprenticeship places.

The Young Peoples Learning Agency would then send sufficient funds to the Skills Funding Agency to cover that number of apprenticeships.

The Skills Funding Agency would only then contact employers to deliver the apprenticeships.

What a system. Only Gordon Brown could create a system like that. And what was the result. The highest rate of youth unemployment ever – a million young people unemployed.

We have an obligation to the younger generation and Labour failed to discharge it. We must do much better. And we will. I can announce today a further 3,000 new apprenticeships here in the Midlands over the next three years, the result of a partnership between Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Birmingham Metropolitan College, represented here in the hall today. Theyll specialise in green technologies, business skills and high-tech engineering. This is what rebalancing the economy means- more apprentices with proper training in the industries of the future. And with qualifications that are tried and tested – BTECs, HNCs, HNDs, and City and Guilds. Those are the qualifications we will be backing.

This all sounds great, so far as it goes. But our system is called capitalism because it is dominated by decisions about how to invest capital, not what apprenticeships are available. So what “rebalancing the economy” really means is not, unfortunately, what Willets says it does. For what it really means, see my piece in this months Prospect. Or almost anything by Will Hutton.

You should have something to mark your achievement after you have completed a rigorous apprenticeship. After you have been to university you are a graduate, yet too often there is nothing to mark the completion of an apprenticeship. That must change. So I can announce today that apprentices in key sectors will be officially awarded the title technician – a badge of honour, just like graduating from university.

Good. This is a tiptoe towards the continental system, where technicians have much higher status. But their status is not established by the piece of paper they get at the end of their training. It is guaranteed by legislation that restricts lots of jobs to people with the appropriate qualification – in other words, red tape and lots of it. For example, anyone in Britain can set themselves up as a builder, but in France it is illegal for someone without the right qualifications to mend a roof. What this means is that the qualification is valuable, which means that people can choose it as a career and will maintain standards. I’d love to see this in Britain, but I don’t think Willetts has this destination in mind.

Last year, in Manchester, I promised that we would deliver 10,000 more university places this year. At the time, Labour said that commitment was unworkable. But I can confirm today that we have delivered it. 10,000 extra people are starting university this year. Many of them are starting this very day. Another manifesto commitment honoured.

Many young people aspire to go to university. On average it boosts your earnings by £100,000 over a lifetime. So, when money is tight, it is right to expect people to make a substantial contribution towards the cost of their university education – not when they are studying but afterwards when they are graduates on a decent income. And there should be protection for the lowest paid. Lord Brownes independent cross-party review will be published next week.

In principle I like that formula on fees. Like the Guardian report of Browne’s plan, it is more or less what I recommended in February in Research Fortnight.

But we cannot expect people to pay more after they graduate if they have not been properly taught. I want to be able to look students in the eye and say they are getting a better education in return for the higher contributions they will make. At the moment academics are more likely to be promoted for research work or for administering their department rather than for excellent teaching. That has to change.

We can drive this change by encouraging new higher education institutions to set up and focus above all on teaching. That is just what we are doing. Kaplan, an independent higher education provider, is offering 3,000 places across the country to study for University of London External Degrees. I am determined to make it easier for other new teaching institutions to challenge existing ones. That is why I have given official recognition to the new BPP University College, the first private university college since Buckingham under Margaret Thatcher.

We can all sympathise with Willetts’ objective of better teaching, but this is not going to work. What we know about the market in undergraduate education is that one of the strongest drivers is the reputation of the university. And the fact is, you don’t build a reputation on great teaching. You build it on great research. The more open the market in HE, the more the balance will shift towards research.

There is more to university than Club 18-30 – going away from home for three years when you are 18. Vince Cable and I – a phrase I use a lot these days – are absolutely determined to ensure more diversity in higher education. It means more two-year degrees, more part-time students, and more courses with placements in business. Thats the future of higher education under this Coalition Government.

That sounds good. But he has notably avoided the more usual meaning of diversity in HE, diversity between institutions and in particular over the question of the amount of research they do. No hint here of what he will do with QR.

We inherited a mess from Labour and we are sorting it out. Ed Miliband said last week that he is an optimist. Well, there are different ways of being an optimist. Micawber was an optimist, hoping something would turn up. Peter Mandelson was an optimist when he went round the country writing cheques for his pet projects months before the election with no money to back them. Thats the false optimism that has landed us in this mess. Were the true optimists. Optimistic about people and what they can achieve.

Our party is the party of the wealth creators. Anyone can have smart ideas about how to spend the wealth. What really counts is smart ideas about how to create more of it.

Er, and those smart ideas are…

There is one group of families to whom we have a special debt – the brave men and women who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. We promised in Opposition that the children of servicemen and women killed in the last 20 years on active duty should have access to education scholarships. That is one small way of recognising the ultimate sacrifice that they have made. I can confirm today that my Department will set aside funding for new higher education scholarships for the children of deceased servicemen and women.

And we plan to go further. It is wrong that so many people, on leaving the armed forces, should face hard times. Liam Fox and I will honour our debt to them. That is why I can also confirm that my Department will continue funding service leavers to get new qualifications. And we plan to offer an enhanced scheme that covers more ex-service personnel. Quite simply, it is the right thing to do.

And I suspect the MoD will have to offer this kind of support more widely if they want to maintain officer recruitment as the impact of fees sinks in.

Our debts to our armed forces go back much further of course. We have just marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. One of the main factories where Spitfires were made is just a few miles from here. We have been honouring the bravery of the pilots. But they did not win on their own. They depended on the skill of the engineers who made the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. Just the sound of a Spitfire brings a lump to your throat. The Battle of Britain is defined not just by people but by machines. That combination drives our nations future today, just as it saved our future seventy years ago.

Around the world, foreign investors and businesses are following closely what our new government is doing. They are impressed by what they see. Two parties working together, putting the national interest first. Getting a grip on the public finances. Investing for growth and jobs in the future. We can all take pride in what we are achieving. It is what we owe future generations.

Is that it? The Conservative growth philosophy never emerged. What happened to “focusing on the big challenge of growth and prosperity”? What about all that stuff about how the country responds to the increasing pace of technological change? Willetts seems to know what the questions are, but to lack the confidence yet to say what he thinks the remedies are, or at least what the government’s role is in that.