From Jexit to Jemain – Jo Johnson stays as universities minister

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Following the unexpected and embarrassing snap election result, Theresa May is left leading a minority government who will be reliant on a “confidence and supply” deal with 10 DUP MPs in order to rule.

While the Queen’s Speech looks to be delayed as they continue to negotiate their agreement, May has undertaken a minor reshuffle of her cabinet, with junior ministers now being finalised. Most ministers and Secretaries of State have kept their positions; a conciliatory move against the anticipated major reshuffle in the event of a landslide victory for May, and a stark contrast against her brutal post-referendum reshuffle last year. Justine Greening, who was expected to go, has now held onto Secretary of State for Education, and Greg Clark remains Secretary of State for BEIS – so no big changes here.

With both her top policy advisors gone, feelings of mutiny within her own party, and the need to build some form of coalition, May will be forced to drop or water down some of her more controversial manifesto policies in order to get the Queen’s Speech through a working parliament. This leaves some wiggle room a change in wider education policy. Greening is known to not be a fan of key flagship policies in her department, and could negotiate on grammar schools, university school sponsorship, and the inclusion of students in the net migration figures.

As such, this reshuffle (or lack thereof) at a cabinet level is good news for the sector. With a minority conservative government reliant on DUP, every vote counts. Continuity leaves the sector working with a known quantity – and potential leeway to lobby on controversial policies.

Junior ministers

Rumours of Jexit had been circulating for a few weeks prior to the election, and it was thought that Jo Johnson might be moved out of the Minister of Universities, Science and Innovation post. Yet, Johnson has made a successful transition from ‘hard Jexit’ to ‘Jemain’ as he holds onto his position. The minister has said he is “delighted” and is “looking forward to implementing HE & Research Act + the TEF”. The delayed TEF results will likely be rescheduled for publishing sooner than originally thought, with no need to brief a new minister with intricacies of the TEF prior to results. Do spare a thought for the civil servant whose TEF briefing for the predicted new minister is now redundant.

The last reshuffle left the universities minister straddling two departments. Some had thought that a post-election reshuffle a good opportunity to resolve that split and place universities in a separate department to science. However, in these new and uncertain circumstances, May’s ‘business as usual approach’ means there is no change here – granting the sector good access to the two key governmental departments they depend upon.

A rare surprise in the reshuffle has been the sacking of Robert Halfon as skills ministers. Halfon is a close friend of George Osborne and rumoured to not get on well with Justine Greening, both of which could be reasons for his demotion. Responsible for overseeing apprenticeship reforms – including the new levy – Halfon has overseen a large policy change in his short time in government. Anyone dealing with the reforms will know it has been fraught with difficulties, and the speed at which it has been pushed through has led to a large number of problems. Asides from personal differences that may have driven this, it could also be a pre-emptive move on May’s part to avoid further bad news which would risk destabilising the government’s image even further.

A review of tertiary education funding is looking increasingly unlikely. No replacement for Halfon has been announced yet, but with such a complex policy area, it would be difficult to hit the ground running in this junior minister position. It is possible May will choose a more managerial MP to hold this position and see it through.

Analysing a reshuffle that appears to tweak around the edges rather than shake things up is no easy feat. However, the short conclusion is that for a sector now facing the implementation of the Higher Education and Research Act, this continuity is positive and suggests business as usual in HE policy – for now.

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