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A wonk’s guide to engaging with new education ministers

As a reshuffle brings a whole new team to the Department for Education, former civil servant Charles Heymann sets out what you need to keep in mind as you seek to engage the new ministerial team.
This article is more than 6 years old

Charles Heymann is a consultant in strategic communications and reputation management.

I am a political junkie. So mid-term reshuffles are thrilling drama. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s in. Who’s out? Who on earth is she? And why’s he got the boot?

But last week shows the brutal personal reality of politics.

Justine Greening arrived at No.10 in her ministerial car. And hours later was packing up her office and calling a taxi home. Jo Johnson presumably didn’t start last week pining to be responsible for getting South West Trains back on track or the ruling on the third runway at Heathrow.

Greening was at least afforded the courtesy to ponder moving to Department for Work and Pensions. For junior posts, there is no time to think. Even squaddies get a chance to tell their families they are off to war.

New ministers get no job descriptions, applications, interviews, presentations, feedback, right of appeal or handovers. There is a simultaneous process of leaving their current job; being told what their new role is; and starting, all on the same afternoon. Yet they are expected to immediately go to work fully on top of their brief and making major decisions from day one.

They might never have worked directly with their new ministerial colleagues. They have never met their private office or senior policy officials. They don’t even know where the bathroom is. It’s only natural it might be isolating and nervewracking. Politicians are after all, only human.

So while it’s fine for us all to pontificate about “what’s in Minister Bloggs’ in-tray“, the transition is far more complicated.

The new education secretary Damian Hinds may have once been on the Education Select Committee and be passionate about social mobility. But he’s been immersed in Treasury and employment policy for the last two-and-half years. He’s had no time to think through a holistic programme.

Yet he is now overseeing an £80 billion budget, covering early years, families, schools, colleges, universities, skills and adult learning, with a major stake in industrial strategy. Oh yes, with social work and child protection thrown in as well.

So here are three thoughts for the higher education sector’s stakeholders, wonks and leaders about dealing with the newly reconstituted ministerial team.

New ministers have different ways of working, styles of decision making, language and tone

All reshuffles are potentially destabilising to a department – and DfE is managing a big changeover. Three out of the five ministers are in new roles. And this will be even more complicated for the new universities minister Sam Gymiah, straddling two departments.

There will have been a very rapid mobilisation on day one from weeks of rumours; watching the news channels; desperately looking up Wiki profiles; calling up mates across Whitehall for any useful titbits – to the new bosses actually walking in the door. My old colleague and former DfE Private Secretary, Dunstan Hadley, writes brilliantly about the organised chaos – including the sheer Thick of It farce of unscrewing nameplates and stripping ministerial offices of all traces of the previous incumbent within minutes.

Ministers will have had masses of briefings and meetings in the last week.

But it takes time for new ministers to establish how they want to manage their own portfolios, how they want to articulate specific policy, and how they want to set out their priorities.

They need to build trust with their private office policy teams. And they will also be learning rapidly to ask the right, challenging questions of officials, and to be confident in their ability to make the correct calls and calibrate the politics.

Don’t assume the new minister is going to fight the same battles as the last

Past personal policy positions are not necessarily an accurate guide to their new mandate.

Hinds is dealing with school budget deficits; a teacher recruitment and retention crisis; and a profession with low morale – that’s the immediate focus for DfE. The business of government does not grind to a halt because there is a new face in town.

So yes, it’s good news Gyimah has written and spoken, eloquently, about market reform and intergenerational fairness before.

But he is now accountable for a brand new regulator launching this Spring; securing a good deal for the sector post-Brexit; or considering how best to sell a root and branch overhaul of university finances. Freedom of speech may not be quite the same go-to headline as it was for Johnson.

So do Hinds and Gyimah a favour. Understand their mandate. Be constructive and engaged. Do not spend their first few weeks waving bleeding stumps or focused on niche issues. They’ve got enough on their plate.

Use the opportunity to regain the initiative for the greater good

Mid-term reshuffles are designed to inject energy, momentum and dynamism into a government – and setting out a stall for the next election. Which means that for now, No.10 is calling the shots. In their early weeks, new ministers never rock the boat. They owe their promotion and salary purely to the Prime Minister.

The sector burned goodwill with No.10 by lobbying so hard to take international students out of net-migration figures. That it has now become a self-imposed test of May’s political strength. So the new lot, while possibly sympathetic in private, will not be pushing back quite yet.

So that means higher education needs to get back on Theresa May’s wavelength and understand her political survival strategy.

Winning votes requires connecting leadership and values with individual concerns. Policy rarely wins elections on its own. So it is irrelevant whether a majority of the public support Labour’s pledge to abolish tuition fees if they do not vote for a government which would deliver it. Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto last year, for all its good reviews, did not bridge the gulf he has with large sections of the public.

Only very senior No.10 and DfE officials will know the full extent Greening and Johnson were blocks to a wide-ranging review financing the system, as has been alleged by Nick Timothy in recent days.

And while the tinkering to date with tuition fees may not be brilliant policymaking, for the Tories, it’s part of a much-needed strategy to reach out to the under-40s disillusioned with the Westminster establishment. The referendum and last year’s election scratched the surface of a deeper public disillusionment – and the whole of Westminster is still trying to work it out.

So while the Office for Students is going full steam ahead, there is no sense from No.10 of this been anything more than a pet project for the now departed Jo Johnson.

May is a classic ‘small c’ conservative pragmatist, someone who ‘gets on with the job’ – not having a binding overarching ideology. She has not articulated a big vision for the transformative power of education, let alone how higher education is a real agent of social purpose and change. And perhaps that’s why she sees universities in transactional terms – sponsoring academies and free schools; boosting apprenticeships; or securing regional growth.

The sector needs to seize this as a golden opportunity to reset, reframe and reposition the sector.

To build up political capital with No.10 and new ministers. To be intelligent about shifting the tone, resisting the public hand-wringing over vice chancellor pay; market reforms; Brexit; and freedom of speech. And frankly, to help the establishment understand what students on our campuses are telling us – and how to harness the energy of social activism; from #metoo, to the environment, to concerns about housing and jobs.

This doesn’t mean an end to advocating for universities. It means being honest about their current strengths and weaknesses. And being proactive about a plan to address them.

We need to embrace, not fear, a more fundamental funding review – as former NUS President Aaron Porter suggests, it’s a platform to articulate real purpose and vision.

In a tough, competitive global market university funding needs to stop being a political football. We need a sustainable model for decades to come. It means building a robust social and financial ‘contract’ between graduates, taxpayer and universities; and ensure a sustainable university system for decades to come. And it also requires bringing together all political parties to build that consensus for a generation.

When it comes to the national agenda, we are so clearly better placed than most to drive a great future for the UK.

This year is the chance to reset our thinking and start that process.

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