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Reshuffle blues- what might a new minister mean for the sector?

It's reshuffle season - David Kernohan wonders what a new HE minister might mean for the sector.
This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

It may possibly have escaped your notice, but there is a cabinet reshuffle due on Thursday.

Forget the more excitable rumours from the election – we are unlikely to see what are technically called “machinery of government changes” and popularly called “closing and merging departments”. But but cryptic commentary from Dominic “PJ Masks” Cummings suggests that perhaps we’re still looking at a stripped-down cabinet, with correspondingly more Ministers of State running major areas of policy without a seat at the top table.

As always, there’s as many rumours as there are ministers quietly briefing journalists – but the question of attending cabinet is one that preoccupies everyone.

To give a higher education sector example, Jo Johnson was “also attending cabinet” throughout both periods of his tenure as Universities Minister – Chris Skidmore (who used to share an office with Cummings) only got to go when he briefly took on Claire O’Neill’s Energy and Clean Growth responsibilities. Neither would get in if the number 10 yen for smaller cabinet meetings is satisfied. And perhaps – let’s go wild here – the weekly morning meetings could do without the unparalleled insight and gravitas of Gavin Williamson too? But what would this mean for the HE sector?

Actions from the last meeting

If you’ve never sat on a university committee you might also make the simple-sounding link between a small group and effective decision making. In practice, having a specialist (or at least someone who is briefed by experts) at the table can make for better, and quicker overall planning, even if the meetings themselves may run longer as Dave from the Registry repeats his famous rant about stable identifiers in administrative data.

Fundamentally, you know that Dave is probably right – even though you can’t bring yourself to care about why. And as much as you might like to punt him off the agenda to actually get stuff done – in a sensible organisation this would not happen. One day you’ll need to have that conversation about identifiers. And Dave needs to be there, to stop you making a terrible decision.

“Getting stuff done”, starting with Brexit and moving on to retrospectively changing sentencing rules for convicted terrorists and a bridge to Northern Ireland, could be the Cummings-approved slogan for the Johnson administration. Many governments have talked about “cutting red tape” and “speeding up decision-making” but this is the first in my memory to take this as anything more than a press release.


The trouble with getting stuff done is that it can blow up in your face – just take a look at Boris’ history of infrastructure projects. Any fool of a Minister or Dean of Faculty can rule by decree and diktat – it takes a special kind of fool to do so without expert advice (from Dave and others) on implications and repercussions. Speedy action makes you look dynamic, but seldom makes you look sensible months and years down the line.

There’s two types of action hanging over the higher education sector. The primary focus is on cost – spending on higher education is projected to grow sharply, and much of the additional money will immediately be shown as a component of the national debt. The Chekovian gun on the table is the Augar Report – and as act three draws to a close it has yet to be fired.

Even the Office for Students is awaiting a government response – most of us can read the runes and see cuts on the horizon (as they will be all over government – enjoy the 0.002 per cent growth in Q4 Boris bounce while you can) but the response will land alongside the Spending Review later in the year. There may be a hint in next month’s Budget, but don’t hold your breath.

Any other business

So that’s one proper, old-fashioned, cuts for the common good, serious government style intervention pending. The other priority is a less tangible one – the continuation of the culture war against universities.

It’s a theme that’s been bubbling under in ministerial statements since the days of Willetts – but the Vote Leave tendency has grabbed on to higher education as one of the demarcation points of the hated “elites” (like the crypto-Marxists they are, Vote Leave are always glad to use class war to gain power). Universities are expensive, yes, but now also out-of-touch, liberal (a new political insult imported from America), ideologically questionable, internationally-aligned, a mono-culture, and a breeding ground for radicals and enemies of the state. And that’s before we get to the moral panic of the day when the Telegraph reports on Students’ Union motions.

Even one of the more popular policy directions for the sector – the UK ARPA – can be seen as an arm of this tendency. It is expected to fund researchers, not necessarily universities. ARPA in the US (during the era Dominic Cummings is fascinated by) was a quasi-university itself, not a funding council. The wider, Newmanite, argument about the life of the mind is no longer justification for universities as the home of nationally-important research.

Vote of thanks

Depending on who you speak to, Chris Skidmore is rumoured to be leaving the universities role. He’s undeniably one of the intellectual heavyweights on an increasingly depressing-looking middle ministerial rank, and I’d cautiously hope for elevation to a more senior (but still non-Cabinet role). The choice of a new Universities Minister will be our first clue as to the future of the sector.

Though all young, ambitious, Conservatives will be unable to resist the occasional pot-shot at the many targets (unconditional offers, grade inflation, free speech) the sector offers – a genuinely good minister would also have the political and intellectual heft to look seriously at the wider issues of funding, access, and skills that Augar tried (and arguably failed) to take on. Cuts would come, but designed strategically to ensure that national priorities are properly addressed.

The other ministerial option would be an attack dog. The opposite of Skidmore’s gentle advocacy. Inexperienced, eager to please, and a party activist on the new populist right. If universities are simply seen as a front in the culture wars government would greatly weaken them by a combination of strategic inaction and Daily Telegraph pleasing posturing. Cuts would still come, but would be piecemeal and arbitrary. Augar’s warning about not setting HE against FE would not be heeded, and apprenticeships would be positioned as another great vocational hope. Universities would end their near-monopoly (less than a century old, after all) on government research funding.

I’m a fan of slow deliberation – the kind of off-the-cuff extemporisation that is the hallmark of Boris Johnson is not conducive to effective policy making. Managing university policy to get a good response from an increasingly febrile party faithful is a route to disaster. In essence we need a new Haldane – but chances are we’ll end up with a new Lord Harmsworth.

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