Do the write thing – the surprising written questions MPs ask about the sector

When Members of Parliament think about higher education, what do you imagine comes to mind? Our investigation suggests the European University Institute Concordat, the Disabled Student Allowance, and what subjects students study head a pleasing but unlikely list of concerns.

Away from the noise of the chamber, written questions (WQs) are a key tool used by members of parliament to hold Government to account. They represent a fascinating insight into the way individual MPs understand higher education policy – both in terms of the way they seek answers to questions from constituents, and the way they develop subtle but effective campaigns of their own. The formal Opposition, and others with a point to make or an axe to grind, use WQs to further their cause.

The art of letter writing

So why not just ask a question in the house? Education questions only come round once every couple of weeks, and there is no guarantee a given MP will get the chance to speak. Even if they do, there is pressure on them to follow a party line in the hope that there will be some media coverage. And with one question and one supplementary, there is a limit to the extent to which a dissembling minister can be held to account for a non-answer.

In contrast, an MP can submit an unlimited number of WQs (though only while the Commons is sitting), and by convention a Minister must respond to a written question within two weeks. Their answer may well include data, where not otherwise available, and may include the publication of requested documents – a little like a Freedom of Information request. Both the question and the answer become a formal part of the parliamentary record – formerly printed in Hansard, they now have their own searchable website. In covering WQ action for the Daily, we’ve seen all kinds of stories broken and admissions of failure made in the answers provided.

Begging the question

But today we are looking at the questions – what do they tell us about the way in which higher education policy is understood by our elected representatives. As a way in, we’ve looked at questions submitted to the Department for Education for answer over the past year – and we found more than 400 of them.

A quick methodology note – using the archive of House of Commons written questions on the parliamentary data site we found more than 8,000 addressed to the DfE. We matched those mentioning student/students, university/universities, “higher education”, or research – about 600 – and then did a manual coding to get us down to our final sample.

You can use search or highlight to find text within the written answers, and the tooltip shows the full text, the name and constituency of the member asking the question. If you click, the question (and answer) will open in a new browser window.

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MPs fight for fairness

We can see a huge, hitherto unexplored, interest in the Disabled Students Allowance. There were 56 questions tabled on support for disabled students in higher education, the vast majority focused on the disabled students allowance, in the year to March 2019.

Of these, 48 were asked by members of the Labour party. Steve McCabe of the Labour party has been running a sustained campaign to get answers in the disabled students’ allowance over the past year, focusing on the £200 self contribution policy but also looking at broader uptake and eligibility figures.

Why Steve McCabe? He’s a former Shadow Education Minister – but, in the Parliamentary Labour Party, who isn’t? He’s kept this campaign going, despite never having spoken in the House on this issue or seeking any publicity. The conclusion may be that he just sees the self-contribution policy as unfair.

Repeat offenders

As you might expect, on the overall volume of questions Angela Rayner (Shadow Education Secretary) and Gordon Marsden (de-facto Shadow HE Minister) top the table. It is, to be fair, a big part of their job – and you’ll note that their lines of questioning tend to relate to the news lines of the day. It’s easy to despair of adversarial party politics rather than analysis-driven policy – but we should be grateful for the often-fascinating extra information we get from the process.

Rayner’s multiple questions about the European University Institute Convention have shed light on a little-known but important component of the UK’s international HE activity and a set of regulations unexpectedly withdrawn. The fact that they were only withdrawn and resubmitted due to a drafting error is beside the point – at least we now know.

But why did erstwhile Brexit Secretary David Davis find time to ask ten questions of the DfE over February and March this year? While as wonks we salute his sudden interest in sector finances and the analysis of LEO data our suspicion is that such “research” underpins a HE slant to his forthcoming leadership bid.

Even though he is better known for his interest in heavy industry, Labour’s Jim Cunningham managed 24 HE related questions in the last year – on wide-ranging topics, but often centred on Coventry and the West Midlands. This highlights another use for written questions – to allow members to better understand the regional effects of national policies. When meeting with interested parties in their constituencies it helps to have the facts at your fingertips – and why not get them directly from the minister?

From public-spirited campaigning, to political point-scoring, to leadership battles – written questions represent the best view we have on the way MPs see higher education. You can view campaigns before the headlines, and identify common causes. But don’t expect to spot the next HE minister… Chris Skidmore did not ask a written question on HE in the year before his appointment, despite his obvious interest.

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