Min­is­ter’s re­port card

How has Sam Gy­imah per­formed so far?

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - John.mor­gan@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Sam Gy­imah branded him­self as Eng­land’s “min­is­ter for stu­dents as much as min­is­ter for uni­ver­si­ties” when he started the job in Jan­uary. Five months on and af­ter two ap­pear­ances be­fore com­mit­tees of MPs and peers, we might have enough ev­i­dence to start judg­ing what that means and how Mr Gy­imah is far­ing as he grap­ples with key chal­lenges in­clud­ing the gov­ern­ment’s re­view of post-18 ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing and mit­i­gat­ing the im­pact of Brexit on re­search.

The new min­is­ter, who, like his pre­de­ces­sor Jo John­son, has a split brief rang­ing across the De­part­ment for Ed­u­ca­tion and the De­part­ment for Busi­ness, En­ergy and In­dus­trial Strat­egy, en­dured a slightly shaky de­but be­fore MPs on the ed­u­ca­tion com­mit­tee last month.

One Con­ser­va­tive de­scribed Mr Gy­imah (pic­tured right) as hav­ing de­liv­ered an “OK per­for­mance” at the hear­ing, as hav­ing not yet mas- tered the brief and show­ing him­self to be “quite tra­di­tion­al­ist” in his at­ti­tudes to higher ed­u­ca­tion.

There is a sense among some in the sec­tor that Mr Gy­imah shows less will­ing­ness or abil­ity to get to grips with the de­tail of pol­icy than Mr John­son.

Per­haps that partly re­flects a shift in the na­ture of the post, which now ap­pears to be at least partly about pro­mot­ing the Con­ser­va­tives on cam­puses – giv­ing the brief a more ex­plic­itly po­lit­i­cal el­e­ment.

Mr Gy­imah ap­pears to have been handed this re­mit from higher up, writ­ing in The Times in Jan­uary that it is “no se­cret that the Con­ser­va­tive Party strug­gled” with younger vot­ers “at the last elec­tion and it is only through pos­i­tive and per­sis­tent en­gage­ment and re­spond­ing to their needs that we can win their trust”.

He also said: “We must also get out there, out­side West­min­ster, into what used to be ‘no-go’ ar­eas and de­fend our record while show­ing how we want to do bet­ter. We must con­tinue to call out Jeremy Corbyn and pre­vent him mo­nop­o­lis­ing the stu­dent space.”

Nick Hill­man, di­rec­tor of the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute and a for­mer Con­ser­va­tive parliamentary can­di­date, said that it was “un­con­sti­tu­tional but po­lit­i­cally as­tute for Sam to re­brand him­self as the min­is­ter for stu­dents. No one ex­pects the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents to swing over to the Con­ser­va­tives overnight. But there is a sense among Sam’s gen­er­a­tion of Tories that po­lit­i­cal life on cam­pus has some­times been a bit sti­fling and that more al­ter­na­tive voices should be heard.

“The goal will be about mak­ing sure stu­dents give Tories the time of day and lis­ten to their ar­gu­ments, even if many of them may not vote for a cen­tre-right party un­til long af­ter they have left higher ed­u­ca­tion.”

This all dove­tails with the gov­ern­ment’s re­view of post-18 ed­u­ca­tion – set in mo­tion by Theresa May in a post-elec­tion panic about the sup­port that Mr Corbyn scored with younger vot­ers through his pledge to scrap tu­ition fees in Eng­land.

In fair­ness to Mr Gy­imah, be­ing “min­is­ter for stu­dents” also has a

pol­icy an­gle – the log­i­cal cul­mi­na­tion of Mr John­son’s fo­cus on stu­dents as con­sumers and the driv­ers of a higher ed­u­ca­tion mar­ket, em­bod­ied in the switch to the Of­fice for Stu­dents as Eng­land’s reg­u­la­tor.

Sarah Main, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Campaign for Science and En­gi­neer­ing, said that Mr Gy­imah has been “ac­tive” while be­ing “stretched across a busy and quite high-pro­file brief”.

She noted that, along­side the gov­ern­ment’s re­view of post-18 ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing, on the science side Mr Gy­imah has to han­dle high-level po­lit­i­cal in­ter­est in the in­dus­trial strat­egy and the tar­get – set out in the 2017 Con­ser­va­tive man­i­festo – to achieve R&D spend of 2.4 per cent of GDP within 10 years. Mr John­son set up a fo­rum on science and Brexit, at which he would talk with se­nior fig­ures from the re­search and higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tors about what they wanted the gov­ern­ment to se­cure in ne­go­ti­a­tions on the UK’s de­par­ture from the Euro­pean Union. “I think Sam has been quite ac­tive in tak­ing it [the fo­rum] over and lis­ten­ing to what peo­ple have to say, and tak­ing those mes­sages on­wards through gov­ern­ment,” said Dr Main. Andy West­wood, pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment prac­tice at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester and a for­mer ad­viser to John Den­ham in his time as Labour sec­re­tary of state re­spon­si­ble for uni­ver­si­ties, high­lighted the post-18 ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing re­view and said of the out­look for Mr Gy­imah: “Re­al­is­ti­cally, many of the big­gest de­ci­sions are go­ing to made higher up – es­pe­cially with a PM and a No 10 want­ing to con­trol and in­ter­vene much more.” He also noted that Mr John­son “had some very strong civil ser­vants in place – Polly Payne, Ruth Han­nant [ who for­merly shared the post of DfE di­rec­tor of higher ed­u­ca­tion re­form] and Iain Mans- field [for­mer DfE deputy di­rec­tor] – all with lots of in­sti­tu­tional mem­ory, and they’ve all moved on, leav­ing Sam with a less ex­pe­ri­enced team”.

Pro­fes­sor West­wood added that the key task of suc­cess­fully steer­ing through the post- 18 ed­u­ca­tion re­view and sub­se­quent pol­icy – which would amount to “po­lit­i­cal, tech­ni­cal, sys­temic” suc­cess, “prob­a­bly in that or­der” – would take “some do­ing, es­pe­cially given the ex­pec­ta­tions that have been raised”. But that task is “in the medium term so he can af­ford to be out and about mak­ing friends and meet­ing stake­hold­ers. He’ll def­i­nitely need them”.

Oth­ers feel that the im­pli­ca­tions of the switch from the old Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Fund­ing Coun­cil for Eng­land to the OfS have not yet been grasped by the sec­tor, with big is­sues about how teach­ing and re­search – the lat­ter area now the re­spon­si­bil­ity of UK Re­search and In­no­va­tion – in­ter­re­late.

A new, in­ex­pe­ri­enced min­is­ter with a wide-rang­ing brief, who did not steer through the leg­is­la­tion set­ting these changes in mo­tion, faces a tough task try­ing to wres­tle with all this.

The OfS, en­dowed with far­reach­ing new pow­ers by Mr John­son, has of­ten been crit­i­cised as giv­ing min­is­ters the abil­ity to in­ter­vene more di­rectly in the run­ning of au­tonomous uni­ver­si­ties.

Per­haps a more hands-off min­is­ter not ob­sessed with the day-to-day run­ning of the OfS is best in these cir­cum­stances. Or per­haps some­one with a sure grasp of pol­icy de­tail is needed, to en­sure that an OfS with the pow­ers to be highly in­ter­ven­tion­ist does not get into too many dan­ger­ous clashes with uni­ver­si­ties.

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