Universities minister quits as PM changes face of government

David Willetts, the United Kingdom universities and science minister in David Cameron's coalition government since 2010, has quit to return to the back benches and will leave parliament at the next general election in 2015.

His decision to leave the job coincided with a far-reaching cabinet reshuffle aimed at overcoming the prime minister's perceived problem with women by promoting more into senior posts.

Cameron’s allies presented the reshuffle as a bold move to shift perceptions of his cabinet as dominated by public school educated male toffs from the Tory heartlands of the shires.

But Willetts is being replaced by a 46-year-old male from the south-east – Greg Clark (pictured). Clark retains a role as financial secretary to the Treasury, confirming his place at the cabinet table, and bringing together a new responsibility for universities and science with his existing role in promoting cities and local growth.

Humble beginnings

Clark, MP for the south-east constituency of Royal Tunbridge Wells, was however born in the northern city of Middlesbrough, which has been heavily hit by the decades-long decline of heavy industry. His father was a milkman while his mother worked at a supermarket checkout counter. He attended a local state school.

And he is not a Tory born and bred – his political career began while reading economics at Magdelane College in Cambridge, where he joined the Social Democratic Party, the short-lived breakaway from the Labour Party led by the ‘Gang of Four’ which was popular with academics but failed electorally.

He became an executive member of its student wing, Social Democrat Youth and Students. The party merged with the Liberal Party in 1988 to become the Liberal Democrat Party, which is now the junior member of the UK’s first coalition government of modern times.

He then studied at the London School of Economics, where he was awarded his PhD in 1989.

His career spans three years with the Boston Consulting Group – known to have one of the toughest recruitment processes in the world, a brief spell as a lecturer at the London School of Economics, and then a Conservative Party policy wonk.

Clark’s new job makes him responsible for science and some have pointed to his public support for homeopathy as potentially weakening his relationship with the scientific community, which is highly sceptical of the benefits of the practice.

On his appointment last Tuesday, Clark tweeted: “Thrilled to be appointed Minister for Universities, Science and Cities – building on the work of the brilliant David Willetts.”

Sector responses

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “We wish Greg Clark well in his new role and look forward to discussing the challenges facing the sector with him. Mr Clark picks up an important brief with enormous significance for both our economy and our society.

“Many higher education reforms from this government have been controversial and unpopular with the sector. Now is a good time to re-evaluate them and for all parties to make clear exactly what they will be offering the electorate at the next election.”

Even if they disagreed over the detail of policy, the university establishment respected Willetts, familiarly named ‘Two Brains’ for his intellectual capacity in managing the consumerisation of UK higher education and saving British science from brutal cuts as part of the post-financial crisis austerity programme.

Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, president of Universities UK, the university lobby group, said: “David Willetts has been a strong advocate for our universities, both at home and internationally. He is widely respected across the sector and has shown a real understanding of the issues facing universities during his time as minister.”

And Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of leading research universities, expressed “heartfelt thanks to David Willetts for the work that he has done whilst in government. His support for science and research has been much appreciated, as well as his willingness to engage with our universities constructively.”

But Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the university think-tank million+, looked forward to an improved relationship between universities and government:

“Universities will also want assurances that the days are over when they were regarded as part of the problem rather than the solution to delivering a high quality professional workforce in teacher, social work and healthcare education.

“Hopefully Dr Clark will be able to forge new and more productive relationships between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the departments of education and health to take this agenda forward.”

It was on Willetts’ watch at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that enthusiasm for expanding the role of private higher education providers through giving students access to state funded loans created a potentially unsustainable boom, allegations of financial irregularity and a projected spend of almost US$1.7 billion next year, leading to an investigation by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office.