Apparently, the new higher education minister for England asked to speak at last night’s ‘in conversation with…’ event – at Queen Mary University of London’s Mile End Institute – while he had his previous prisons and probation brief. In a coup for the university and to his credit, he kept the appointment.
Overall he performed well under smart questioning from Philip Cowley and a diverse range of issues raised by the audience, often striking a modest tone while still getting his points across. He talked about listening and being new to the job while setting out some Conservative policies and achievements. Some of it felt a bit familiar, echoing things he and his party have said before, but there were also some nice new turns of phrase here and there. As usual, the part-time student numbers were quietly glossed over when talking about disadvantaged students.
He got in the odd political jibe about “Comrade Corybn”, but highlighted what a tricky issue tuition fees have been for successive governments, explaining that the opposition always votes against changes and over-promises, but that care is needed not to “stoke dissolution among students”.
The chair helpfully clarified one important question early on; it’s pronounced “gee-ma”. We also learned that education “made a big difference for this son of a single mother from Ghana” and that he considers his mother a hero. He also admires Abraham Lincoln for “being able to work with people … including his rivals”, and Margaret Thatcher for “strength of mind and focus”.
When asked about similarities between education and prisons, his answer included that the former should help prevent the latter. He described his new brief as “fantastic” and said his priorities include “delivering for students in a number of ways; real choice, transparency, value for money, getting what they pay for, and contact time.” When questioned whether the latter equated to quality, he said it wasn’t his job “to be prescriptive about contact hours or the curriculum, but that it’s right to have accountability”. He said it’s about “more than attracting students, are they succeeding?”, and talked of government working with “people like the NUS” to deliver for students.
He praised his predecessor for being “incredible” at setting up the institutions needed for the new landscape, referencing TEF and the OfS as ways of “getting under the bonnet” of degrees, so that institutions don’t just “rest on their pedigree”.
Asked if we have too many students now, he said we shouldn’t “limit aspiration … but people should be aware of the choices in the market … are we doing the right thing for them … we haven’t championed the alternatives to higher education … such as degree apprenticeships”, and that we should “make available more scenic routes to people”. Cowley raised the issue of “other people’s children”, and that such alternatives tend to end-up being for working-class students, not their more privileged peers.
On Brexit, the once-Remain campaigner said “it’s not where I wanted to be … but we are leaving … we’ve got to look forward … we’re a global science powerhouse … we will still do very well in R&D and research”.
He did a good politician’s job of hedging some important questions, including the major review, BAME students at Oxbridge, and free speech. The former is perhaps understandable, the latter two less so.
When repeatedly pressed about the major review’s timing and scope, he eventually stated he wasn’t “going to tell”, but that the “tertiary review” will be a “positive move” to review what’s working since 2012 and that it will go beyond fees. He raised the cost of living – saying he was shocked some students pay for a whole year up-front, and many pay exorbitant printing costs.
He also talked about mental health challenges, citing recent Children’s Commissioner research about the impact of social media, and that he’d like to see more from such companies.
Although Gyimah admitted there were “few like him” 20 years ago at Oxford, he was reluctant to criticise his alma mater, saying there was no conscious bias, that such institutions “value excellence and recruit the best”, but that we need to teach more people “the rules of the game”.
On free speech, Gyimah said “university should be an assault on the senses” and that it would be “a tragedy to have either US-style censorship or Yiannopoulos-style baiting”. When the chair explained he’d not encountered a safe space in his 22 years in the sector, the minister stated free speech is “being discussed in the news” and that he wants to ask people and review the evidence about it.
Perhaps he could have started with that before putting it second on the list of issues he wants to discuss in an article for a national newspaper earlier the same day? He responded to this wonk correspondent’s question about that exact topic by asking “to give him a break” and saying “we’re not going to be friends” if I misrepresent what he’s written. I didn’t think I had but was pleased to hear him commit again to review the evidence, visit universities, speak to students and the Human Rights Committee – which he’s “seeing soon”.
Young and the young
Throughout the discussion, Gyimah professed a long-term interest in speaking directly with individual students and young people (“not lobbyists”), referencing experiences from his time at Oxford and on the Remain campaign trail. When asked if the Conservatives are “too obsessed with young people” currently, he said no. He said it was “dangerous that the young feel disenfranchised … don’t have a stake in the future … and feel politicians don’t deliver”.
However, he also warned against “grouping people into demographics … to say all 18-24 years olds think this”. He stated such approaches would be “quite patronising” and that not every other 41-year-old shares his views. Yes, he’s 41, it surprises you every time.
He was clearer about his beliefs on VC pay and Toby Young. On pay he quoted Peter Mandelson, saying he was “intensely relaxed” with them earning more than him, but that there have “clearly been some egregious cases … that shouldn’t be a feature of our system … with the Bath case obvious”, and that he is “against high pay for mediocre performance … that’s unacceptable … we have to ask if the market is working”. On Young, he stated what had been said was unacceptable, which is why he was no longer in the job, that’s an end of it, and he wants to move on.
His response to a question about advice for future politicians was to “be careful what you put on social media and to do what you’re passionate about” and that though this was a “time of change … there are opportunities to seize”.
In the reception afterwards, the new minister was surrounded by students picking a particular bone or inviting him to something. He seemed happy enough to shake this wonk correspondent’s hand and say hello, but despite the youthful appearance professed to be quite tired.