Exclusive: How Teflon Theresa dismembered “Two Brains” over London Met University

David Willetts: Two dismembered brains? Pic courtesy: The Guardian

Update: Three hours after Exaro News revealed the delay, London Metropolitan University announced it was scrapping the scheme altogether. A statement said it was going  to call in fresh consultants and  start again. It has abandoned the tendering exercise. David Willetts has truly lost everything over this.

The  furore over the threatened deportation of thousands of overseas students studying at London Metropolitan University is well-known. What is not so well-known is the political battle between two prominent ministers, Theresa May, the home secretary, and David Willetts, the universities minister – known as ” two brains” because of his formidable intelligence, over the heart and soul of Tory policy.

The train crash happened at the London Met because two different Tory policies collided with each other. Theresa is a champion of curbing illegal immigration. David Willetts is a champion of university privatisation. Successful and profitable privatisation however depends on attracting more- not less – immigration to the UK in the form of overseas students. The London Met, as we shall see below, was his pet project.

The two ministers were at loggerheads before this started and so far Theresa has outwitted  brainy Willetts.

Theresa May: Pic courtesy: The Guardian

The clue is revealed  in the court case that London Metropolitan brought to try to overturn the ban on recruiting overseas students. Here it is revealed it was Theresa May not the UK Borders Agency that ordered the ban. It was a political not an operational decision. Here I am indebted to Andrew McGettigan whose critical education site is well worth following. ( See     http://andrewmcgettigan.org/2012/09/24/update-on-london-metropolitan/  )

Now why was this decision so damning to Willetts? Well it was taken almost on the day London Met was to decide which private bidder – from BT Global, Capita and Indian firm Wipro – would take over running the university and win a £74m five year contract. Not only was this the biggest contract for a university in the UK but if successful  the private company could offer to run other universities, making the contract worth a staggering £500m. Full details are in my articles in Exaro News (http://www.exaronews.com)

Now Willetts and George Osborne had staked a lot on this and it was smashed overnight. Willetts is closely connected to Malcolm Gillies, vice-chancellor of the university. His former special adviser Jonathan Woodhead, is now  a £75,000 a year executive reporting directly to the vice-chancellor. Both Willetts and Gillies are strong advocates of what they call ” shared services” which allow a private company to take over the running of everything at a university with the exception of the teaching and the vc’s office.

George Osborne had been helpful by creating a hardly noticed change to VAT legislation this year -exempting private companies bidding for shared ownership schemes from being liable for VAT. At a stroke this cut their bid price by 20 percent.

But the uncertainty surrounding whether London Metropolitan University will get back its special status to recruit overseas students means that no private company is likely to touch the deal as they won’t know the size of the university or whether the university can survive at all without overseas students. And even though the university is appealing there is no date set for the judicial review.

So at a stroke Willetts’ pet privatisation scheme has been put on hold. Indeed altogether not a good year for Willetts. A separate plan to introduce a bill extending the rights of private universities to award degrees has been shelved for a year and he was the person who appointed Ed Lester, head of the student loans company, to his job under a ” tax avoidance” scheme that has now been vetoed,increasing Mr Lester’s tax bill.

Willetts has also in Tory terms been outclassed by the more radical and dangerous Michael Gove. Indeed if Willetts was a state school, his performance to date would mean he would be hived off to the private sector after failing his Ofsted.

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