This article is more than 7 years old

The candidates for Prime Minister and higher education

With the leadership of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister now open to an election, David Morris runs down the runners and riders and what we know about their approach to higher education.
This article is more than 7 years old

David Morris is the Vice Chancellor's policy adviser at the University of Greenwich and former Deputy Editor of Wonkhe. He writes in a personal capacity.

In some ways, UK politics has been missing some old fashioned Conservative Party intrigue for some years. Last week’s drama as the nominations deadline approached more than made up for it. Once again, the favourite to be Conservative leader will not claim the top prize. Boris Johnson is out of the leadership race after a brutal piece of Machiavellian manoeuvring by Michael Gove. Meanwhile, Theresa May has raced into the lead, but will that be a curse instead of a blessing?

If the contest does become a showdown between Gove and May, then the Tory membership will be given a very clear choice: between a radical reformer who will undoubtedly pursue aggressive social reform, and a ‘safety-first’ unifying figure who will take the government forward with caution. Both share a similar quality that goes down very well with Conservative members and backbench MPs: a willingness to pick a fight with public sector ‘vested interests’, and both have done so with elements of the university community.

Here is a quick overview of the candidates and outline what we know about their attitudes towards higher education, and the implications their premiership would have for the sector.

Theresa May

While Jeremy Corbyn’s lukewarm support for the Remain campaign has been branded a disaster, Theresa May is being praised by politicos everywhere for the way she quietly (and probably reluctantly) remained above the fray during the vicious campaign.

Despite primarily using this as a basis to present herself as the ‘consensus’ and ‘unity’ candidate, her campaign launch also hinted at a wish to proactively address social issues, particularly in education. Her 2013 Tory conference speech suggested that subject numbers in higher and further education could be planned or incentivised to meet skill shortages. May has an interest in education policy, having held the portfolio as a councillor and when the Conservatives were in opposition.

May’s aggressive approach towards international students and Tier 4 visa licences has made her many enemies in the higher education sector, as did her boast to Tory conference that she didn’t “care what the university lobbyists say” about post-study work visas. The Home Office is now facing legal action over the illegal deportation of nearly 50,000 international students that suggests it was at least a little too zealous in pursuit of targets to cut overall immigration figures by any means necessary.

However, her career to date has shown a pragmatism that has trumped ideological drives, and if she finds it politically expedient, she may choose to ease off on international students, particularly if immigration falls in other sectors as we leave the EU. Her political fight with the Police Federation was similarly borne out of a wider necessity to implement savage cuts in budgets. May has already adeptly u-turned on her pledge to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and on fiscal policy. That said, whatever she chooses to prioritise in government policy, she will undoubtedly pursue it doggedly and single-mindedly.

Michael Gove

Few ministers in recent British political history have managed to divide opinion so sharply as Michael Gove. His tenure as Education Secretary cut through to the heart of public and policy debates about education, resulting in fall outs over qualification reform, school governance, teachers’ pay, and standards. Gove zealously pursued a controversial programme of reform that has been lauded by the Conservative base and commentators and decried by many teachers and academics. Gove’s subsequent leadership of the Leave campaign and his now infamous comment that “the British people have had enough of experts” makes him an easy hate-figure for the liberal middle-classes, including many in universities.

Gove has labelled “academics who have helped run the university departments of education responsible for developing curricula and teacher training courses” as the “enemies of promise” and politically motivated “Marxists”. He revelled at breaking universities’ monopoly on teacher training, accusing his opponents of harbouring a rigid “ideology” which he was at least as equally guilty of himself. His ambitions for schools pointed to a belief in education to transcend and break down class divisions if subject to sufficiently aggressive ‘reforms’, and his allies claim he is a “warrior for the dispossessed”. On the other hand, his campaign launch speech appeared to reach out to academia by hinting at increasing government spending on research and science. While at the DfE he indicated an interest in taking on responsibility for higher education policy by bringing it back under DfE’s control from BIS.

While still working as a journalist for The Times, Gove co-founded the think-tank Policy Exchange with his now campaign chair and Skills Minister Nick Boles. We expect a promotion for Boles if Gove wins, as well as even more leverage for the already influential Policy Exchange, which was the genus of many recent flagship policies such as the pupil premium, free schools, and the expansion of alternative higher education providers.

Gove’s ascension to the premiership would no doubt make many in the sector very nervous and under scrutiny; those who disagree with him at least recognise his formidable capability for polemic and a political fight. As shown by his turn on Boris Johnson last Thursday, as well as the way other critics have been treated in the past, he can be ruthless, whilst also renowned for his personal affability and kindly nature. Expect a showdown with higher education if we do wake-up to Prime Minister Gove on September 9th.

Stephen Crabb

The Work and Pensions Secretary is hoping to replicate David Cameron’s rise to the leadership of the Conservatives from relative obscurity, and also present himself as the ‘compassionate conservative’ candidate. His bid is effectively a dual-candidacy with Sajid Javid, who would become Chancellor if Crabb is elected. Unlike Cameron, Crabb will not have the opportunity to address the Conservative conference before any ballots are cast. Cameron’s ‘no-notes’ speech to the 2005 Tory conference was said to have won him the election. Also unlike Cameron, the party membership may not be quite so desperate for a ‘compassionate’ or ‘purely electable’ candidate like they were in 2005, particularly with Labour in such disarray. Crabb’s climb to the top is thus a lot steeper than Cameron’s was eleven years ago.

Despite positioning himself as the more liberal candidate, Crabb has a curious history in relation to some social issues that will no doubt come under scrutiny during the campaign. A staunch Christian, he voted against same-sex marriage and also has ties with a Christian campaigning group that has run a conference on “therapeutic approaches to same-sex attraction”. This will no doubt be a put off the more liberal wing of the Tories that Crabb is hoping to be his base. Nonetheless, Crabb’s parliamentary supporters so far are overwhelmingly from the 2010 and 2015 intakes of MPs who wish the party to move quickly on from its obsession with Europe. Crabb’s only parliamentary mentions of higher education have been rather lukewarm defences of government policy on international students during his time as Welsh Secretary. Crabb was educated at the University of Bristol.

Andrea Leadsom

The big question surrounding Andrea Leadsom’s candidacy is whether she can amass a significant enough number of Brexit MPs to split the Leave backers and keep Michael Gove out of the final two who will be presented to the membership. Leadsom’s standing grew greatly during the referendum campaign as she was given prominent airtime to prevent the Leave campaign being completely dominated by male voices. She is also respected by many Tories for her successful career in the financial sector before entering parliament.

Leadsom would be the out-and-out Thatcherite candidate with a more prominent history of Euroscepticism than Gove, having set up the ‘Fresh Start’ Eurosceptic pressure group. She also played a prominent role in the Treasury Select Committee’s investigation of the Libor scandal. Leadsom has not made any parliamentary contributions on higher education, though she has taken an interest in early-years care and sexual health and relationships education. Leadsom was educated at the University of Warwick.

Liam Fox

A scandal and resignation from the government in 2011 has not put Liam Fox off a second run at the Tory leadership. He is currently by far and away the bookies’ outsider. Since resigning from the government, Fox has had little to say about education policy and has focused his interests on social conservatism, Euroscepticism, and foreign affairs. He favours staunch controls on immigration. Fox may also split the Brexit MPs’ vote in the early rounds of voting but is not expected to make the final two ahead of Leadsom or Gove.

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