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What’s in Sam Gyimah’s in-tray?

We have a new Minister for Higher Education - but who is he, and what will be the big issues awaiting his attention? David Kernohan runs down his CV and sneaks a peak into his in-tray
This article is more than 6 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Former civil servant Andrew Greenaway described the entry of a new minister to a department in memorable terms.

New ministers bring new energy into government. What these senior civil servants need to determine quite quickly is what sort of energy their new boss brings. It could be nuclear: excellent in principle, but potentially accompanied by dark and catastrophic consequences. Or solar: intense, intermittent and expensive. It may be limitless wind.

It may, of course, be that a new minister is more like a hydro-electric storage facility – taking energy out of a system in hysteresis and storing it for future use as required. In the nicest possible way, we predict that this may be the role of Sam Gyimah as Minister for Higher Education – to calm down a sector that has lurched from media storm to media storm since the snap election.

Who is Sam Gyimah?

The new higher education minister studied PPE at Somerville College, Oxford and was president of the Oxford Union in the Michaelmas Term of 1997. But his university career was dogged by money concerns – Sarah Cassidy at the Independent tells us that “At the end of Sam Gyimah’s first year at Oxford University his finances were in a mess. His student grant was gone and the rent on his Oxford college room was due. He simply couldn’t afford to pay.” Happily, he was able to reach an accommodation with the Bursar, and the college converted his fees into a loan, payable after graduation. He’s still a member of the Somerville College Development Board, helping raise bursaries for under-privileged students

He spent some time as an investment banker, before moving into the recruitment industry – setting up a number of companies, and being voted CBI Entrepreneur of the Future in 2005. He also worked with Conservative think-tank The Bow Group in 2005, editing the influential “From the Ashes…: The Future of the Conservative Party”, which included contributions from Theresa May, David Willetts, David Cameron, and Michael Gove. He became chair of the Bow Group in 2006-2007, following in the footsteps of new Education Secretary Damian Hinds who held the role from 2001-2002.

As one of David Cameron’s “A-list” candidates, he became MP for East Surrey in 2010. He touched again on his financial struggles at Somerville during his maiden speech, which primarily focused on the perceived weaknesses of George Osborne’s budget. His ministerial career began as Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Cameron, and took in junior roles as a whip, at the Treasury and the Cabinet Office. His first job in Education was as Under-secretary for Childcare and Education, a role he held for a little over a year before being moved by Theresa May to a prisons role in the Ministry of Justice.

Instinctively on the moderate wing of the party, Gyimah campaigned for a Remain vote in the 2016 referendum. However, he has never rebelled in a Commons vote. He did not speak at all during any of the Higher Education and Research Act debates, and has largely stayed off the topic of universities in parliament – excepting some entertaining sledging around voter registration in a 2015 Opposition Debate, some of which later found use in a blog in November last year. It is perhaps as a debater that Gyimah is best known in the house, regularly contributing to the filibustering of Private Member’s bills.

One historical note – we’ve now had a male minister with responsibility for universities for the last fifteen years.

What’s in his in-tray?

It may well be that he’s been told the heavy lifting has all been done, with HERA, UKRI and the OfS making for the biggest machinery changes in the HE system for a generation. In this version of events, all he has to do is keep the various trains running on the tracks laid out by Jo Johnson – and try to avoid unforced public errors like the Toby Young debacle. His role will be to calm down a political hotspot, taking the heat out of the debates on fees and VC pay.

Another version would see an extremely proactive and high profile period if and when the review of HE funding and student finance materialises.

Major Review and tuition fees

Jo Johnson famously resisted Theresa May’s promise of a “major review” of higher education finance – a promise that quickly became a farce as DfE and Number 10 briefed and counter-briefed. With two new ministers in place, May should now get her way, as obstacles to a big review (or a watered down, quiet version) are now removed.

Meanwhile, university leaders will be lobbying for an inflationary fee cap rise, following the freeze this year. But such a move would be unlikely to get through parliament under its current arithmetic, and the government could use the excuse of a review to keep HE funding policy in general in the deep freeze until it concludes.

The other piece of this puzzle is the Treasury – Philip Hammond is known to favour subject-specific fees linked to some calculus of future earnings and public benefit. The perception of high student debt is seen – rightly or wrongly – as an electoral risk for the Conservatives, making further radical action more likely than not as we move towards the next election.

In the past, Gyimah has argued that the main outcome from higher education is to improve employment outcomes and that diversity of provision, with a particular focus on part-time, was key to deliver this. However, since the introduction of the new loans regime, which saw an increase in fees and loans for part-time education, the sector has seen a drop of 47% in part-time students. Therefore, any funding review will need to look at the funding of part-time education.

OfS, regulation and quality

Toby Young’s appointment and subsequent resignation has obscured a plethora of issues with the new regulator. Shaped very much as an ideological device to support the functioning of the market, recent months have seen the addition of numerous tasks that require a more hands-on role. Grade inflation and free speech are just the more visible aspect of a general feeling that the government might prefer more sector levers than HERA anticipated.

It is worth remembering that OfS also absorbs the functions of OFFA, regarding access and widening participation. The sole focus of this work appears to be on Access agreements, with the OfS tasked with developing risk-based innovations to improve participation. How this function develops in light of recent criticisms about the government’s record on social mobility will be key.

To say the OfS has had a troubled start is an understatement – and the lengthy, complex, regulatory framework has been far from popular. There are two safe pairs of hands as Chair and CEO, but there are many issues around what OfS regulation will look and feel like – for instance, does anyone seriously believe that real-time data will be available in the near future?

Research funding

With Greg Clark somehow remaining at BEIS the distinctly underwhelming industrial strategy remains the order of the day, and it will be Gyimah’s role to argue for a central place for higher education in delivering skills and R&D goals. Jo Johnson was successful in establishing the principle of linking interdisciplinary research funding to government priorities, and the sector would love to see this continue. Research and development is seen as key to unlocking the UK productivity puzzle, so to a certain extent, this should mean pushing on an open door.

KEF and industry links

The Knowledge Exchange Framework was – let’s be frank – a nonsensical rebranding of existing metrics in pursuit of a headline. There’s no need to push through changes to the way the well-regarded Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) works, and no need to incentivise institutions that could not be keener to supplement research income from the commercial sector. With Innovate UK now safely tucked underneath UKRI, and the rise of the impact agenda in REF, there is scope to support interlinkages on a much more sophisticated level than another league table proxy.


Concerns about a brain-drain are growing, with reports of 2,300 EU nationals leaving the sector — supporting the claim that the UK will welcome the “brightest and best”. There’s a similar story about international student recruitment, and although Jo Johnson has done a good job for the sector on this issue, it has often put him at odds with senior Conservatives and the general public.

Delicate negotiations regarding access to Horizon 2020 funding and co-regulation around nuclear and medical science research will make Gyimah’s gentle “remain” leaning much more visible. He’ll need to decide whether his loyalty lies with the party that decides his career progression or the sector. Jo Johnson was unafraid to take the risk where needed – but will the new man do the same?

VC pay and free speech

VC pay is both an easy win in the populist press and a policymaking headache – the same could be said for the endless permutations of the free speech debate. In recent months, Johnson has attempted to play to the wider crowd – making headline-grabbing announcements that dissolved on contact with the letter of the law.

OfS does not have any real power in either sphere, but the temptation for the minister to pretend that they do may be overwhelming given the friendly headlines the issues can generate. The extent to which Gyimah runs with these issues is entirely down to him, and how he picks them up now will say a lot about the character of his tenure as universities minister.


This is getting messy. Halving the weight given to the actual expressed opinion of students, trailing subject level assessments in secret, and bringing in arbitrary degree inflation measures and historic salary data – the Teaching Excellence Framework we knew and didn’t really like has become something of a monster. It’s now arguably far more about the overall historical performance of the sector in delivering well-paid graduates than it is about measuring excellent teaching.

The changes between year 2 and 3 are such that it is no longer even safe to pretend that the two sets of awards will be comparable. Despite concerted behind-the-scenes lobbying from HEFCE, the award has repeatedly been tweaked to catch headlines and address issues of the day. It will not be surprising if next year’s planned independent review of TEF is brought forward to put things back on an even keel and enable the government to make clear-sighted decisions about its future.

Publish the Student Income and Expenditure Survey 2014-15

Seriously, it was meant to be out in the summer. It’s been written. The Welsh government has already published its version. We’d like to know how students are spending their money. Publish it.

One response to “What’s in Sam Gyimah’s in-tray?

  1. Is this sentence phrased correctly? “Concerns about a brain-drain are growing, with reports of 2,300 EU nationals leaving the sector — supporting the claim that the UK will welcome the “brightest and best” e.g undermining the claim…

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