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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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David Willetts is the politician responsible, above all others, in the United Kingdom for the £9,000 student fee level and its associated phenomena (including the privatization in all-but-name of UK universities). Yet he also writes extremely well of the essential unfairness and breaking of the intergenerational contract between the baby boomers and the millennials in which the latter bear a huge burden while the former group prosper. Why would the man who diagnoses this problem then impose a system that makes the younger generation take on massive debt upon themselves? These are my evolving (i.e. not static) notes on what I have been able to deduce from Willetts’s writings to try to understand this (even while I may remain opposed to it). I have assumed, of course, that Willetts’s political philosophy is coherent. It may not be.

The edition of The Pinch that I cite here is Willetts, David, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future - and Why They Should Give It Back (London: Atlantic, 2010).

  1. Willetts conceives of the welfare state primarily as a mechanism for distributing resources from a.) those in the period of their lives where they make a net contribution to the economy, to the old and young who are “unproductive”; and b.) from men (who [unfairly] earn more) to women. (The Pinch, p. 159.) An exception is also made for those who cannot work but fall in the productive bracket.

  2. Willetts thinks that the current government policy of “balancing the books”/deficit reduction is problematic. For Willetts, balancing the books can work when you have “cohorts [generations] of equal sizes working their way through the system”, which leads to “fiscal equity across the generations” (The Pinch, p. 163). However, when there are cohorts of unequal sizes – such as the baby boomers – this doesn’t work well. This is because: the boomers require lots of welfare for their childhood; then they reach working age but only feel they have to pay to cover the smaller generation behind them in terms of childhood welfare so they decrease tax expenditure; then they get old and require more welfare again, but they have not saved for this, they have instead relied on the smaller following generation to all have to pay more to cover them (The Pinch, p. 163). “The balanced-budget rule”, according to Willetts, works “very neatly to the advantage of the baby boomers’ generation and to the disadvantage of their successors” (The Pinch, p. 163).

  3. But Willetts does stand by George Osborne’s statement that “we should have fixed the roof while the sun was shining” and feels that the “consistent and principled position is to be worried about imposing on future generations” (The Pinch, p. 169).

  4. Willetts believes in reciprocal benefits and cooperation based on a paradigm, as I interpret it, of mutual self-interest (The Pinch, p. 264).

  5. Willetts has some odd views of millennials and social constructivist theories: “they may see all knowledge as a matter of opinion and contentious. (Indeed, one suggestion is that some of them may not believe that man landed on the moon; the web is full of accounts of how it was all faked by the authorities)” (The Pinch, p. 55). I don’t see, in my personal experience, anything that correlates these views specifically with young people.

  6. One of the arguments Willetts brings out for how members of younger generations are disadvantaged is, of all things, that they “may well have had to pay for their university education” (The Pinch, p. 65).

  7. For Willetts, the fact that houses are assets that are converted into inflated cash sums, rather than places to live, seems core to the breaking of the inter-generational contract (The Pinch).

  8. There’s not much about the British Empire and how much it contributed to the prosperity of contemporary Britain or non-traditional family structures in The Pinch.

  9. University is conceived of as a place primarily for young people, although there is one paragraph where Willetts says that “Education is not just for children and young people” (The Pinch, p. 212).

  10. Willetts devotes quite a lot of space to gender inequality in education and considers intersectional attributes here, mostly on family income level (The Pinch, p. 207).

  11. In The Pinch, the prime signal that marketisation of education is core to Willetts’s philosophy is articulated in relation to schools, not universities. Willetts writes of his diagnosis that we could “introduce school vouchers” where “the idea is to empower parents to choose the good schools by giving them direct spending power” (The Pinch, p. 204). But Willetts also believes that without “reform” this voucher system (a kind of virtual or symbolic economy) would simply replicate the ills that he diagnoses. He therefore also believes that “the failure to open up the supply side […] is the reason why, despite years of ambitious attempts at education reform, Britain still lags behind many other advanced Western countries” (The Pinch, p. 206). This is framed by analogy to railways in which he distressingly seems to believe that health and safety regulations are a huge burden, despite their root in accident prevention: “health and safety regulations make it very hard to add extra carriages” (The Pinch, p. 205). But anyway, this leads to the “free schools” programme: “We must make it easier for people, including parents themselves, to set up new schools” (The Pinch, p. 206). As with many of Willetts’s cures, I pretty much outright disagree; why would parents know more about education and be better placed to run it than a system that has spanned multiple generations and can draw on extensive experience?

Working thesis: Willetts’s concept of the welfare state is that certain types of provision – health in particular – should be paid for by an inter-generational contract enforced by government. But he worries about the fact that different cohort sizes cause economic fluctuation that is compounded by short-term political cycles and logics of “balancing the books”. When it comes to university education, Willetts sees a solution in making each generation pay for its own education deferred until the time when its members become productive. This explains the income-contingent-repayment loans aspect. This yields a lesser burden in the present on those in the “productive zone” – which may be more synthetic with political imperatives to “balance the books” – because they simply underwrite the difference between outlay and non-repayment, albeit with a discount rate applied (the impairments on the loans, the yearly ring-fenced RAB charge). This seems, from what I gather of Willetts’s writings, to be a solution that to him still carries an element of inter-generational contract (since the loan impairments are underwritten) but that is more politically palatable. It is also one where each generation covers its own size of university cohort, although this then brings major fluctuations in security for universities since their income levels vary wildly with cohort sizes. (Willetts also seems to assume that it is primarily the young who should be going to university.) Willetts’s focus on marketisation is linked to the fact that without changing the market his introduction of “spending power” into educational choice would, he believes, simply replicate the existing system.