The lost Minister, and the forgotten parliament

So, what of Chris Skidmore?

Yesterday gave us a rare chance to see the man in action in the House of Commons, fielding informed questions from the Commons Education Committee and opening a debate on an unlikely Statutory Instrument linked to the Higher Education and Research Act.

If his brief has been to lower the temperature of the national higher education debate, based on performance so far we must say mission accomplished. The Commons has an end of term feel to it anyway, with an entire absence of meaningful legislation being brought forward to the government as we sail past the expected point of prorogation with no end in sight. But today’s sessions were so laid back as to be practically horizontal.

With a scholarly style and a gentle voice, the Minister plays the sector advocate convincingly – leaving the hectoring headline-chasing to Damian Hinds, who has been talked about as a prospective leadership candidate primarily by sources (very) close to Damian Hinds. It’s a big change from the higher education tenure of Sam Gyimah – a man never afraid of publicity as the self-styled Minister for Students.

Augar and everything after

Augar is the big elephant in the room – Skidmore hasn’t read it, and the Department for Education’s Matt Toombs could only say it was in the “final stages”, as it has been widely understood to be since late February. It’s a Prime Ministerial creation, reporting to the PM, Chancellor, and Secretary of State, not to the Minister. There has been no changes to the remit to take account of the radically different spin on lowering the deficit that the Office for National Statistics decision to that predicted non-repayment of student loans should form part of the deficit on the government’s books, has created.

Skidmore tends to style himself minister for whatever aspect of his role he happens to be talking about – he was Minister for EdTech at one point, a choice he may seek to rethink. Today he was Minister for Higher Education Data, flagging the “inadequacy” of POLAR for use as the measure of multiple deprivation it was never designed to be, and praising his higher education Data Advisory Committee.

This was his decision to establish in January based on his concerns about information availability. Since then there has been no more information forthcoming, which is ironic after a fashion. He’s struck by the lack of data in the sector, and queries whether more should be available, perhaps on the numbers of those who are the first university attendees in their immediate family. No-one had the heart to say that POLAR is actually a fairly good proxy for this.

He is not, however, Minister for Further Education (that responsibility falls to Ann Milton MP). Which means that the Augar Review, famously looking across all post-18 education, can make for some tricky cross-portfolio moments. Not least as it is Milton who holds responsibility for degree apprenticeships, and with noted advocate Robert Halfon MP in the chair for the first part of the meeting these were bound to come up. He puts the lack of progress firmly at the door of the Institute for Apprenticeships and employers in developing standards. And he wants to see universities offering further education qualifications, and more further education colleges offering higher education qualifications.

The unlikely return of AimHigher?

Halfon opened the discussion on access and participation: the sector (institutions and OfS) spends something in the region of £870m on outreach, could this be spent better? Introducing the grim idea of “undermatched” students (students at “worse” universities than their A level grades suggested they would attend) perhaps wasn’t the greatest intervention in this debate – Skidmore’s response on the need for a “strategic and systemic” approach to access spending displayed characteristic depth of analysis.

Rather than have every provider try to do the same thing on access and participation, would it be better to consider a national framework? Cue sharp intake of breath for those scrambling to submit access and participation plans to OfS. This is all very much kite-flying, but discussions with access charities and institutions, and the concept of the evidence and impact exchange, do seem to be pointing back in this direction.

His willingness to speak up for higher education is refreshing – while agreeing in principle that we should offer an equal focus on non-higher education routes to skills and employment, he did so with the caveat that there was a huge demand for degree courses from young people and he had no wish to attempt to quash these aspirations. He won’t countenance a “grade floor” for student finance, noting members of the committee would not have attended university if this foolish idea had come to pass. Even the references to LEO data were properly caveated.

On autonomy, “the great success of higher education providers” he said “is that they are not public sector”. And he’s willing to recognise excellence wherever he sees it. Ninety-seven percent of UK providers are in the top 5 per cent of higher education institutions in the world (not sure on what measure). He sees talk about “former polys” as “beating up on higher education” and “following Daily Mail headlines.” Don’t forget, we are not far in time from Michael Gove insisting on working only with the Russell Group. That said, time was found to praise the now discredited Russell Group/MSE attempt to simplify the student finance statement.

The tired Parliament

So to the floor of the Commons, where there was one question on the lips of MPs regarding the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (Further Implementation etc) Regulations 2019 – why? In any normal times, such a technical and procedural instrument would debated in committee, and would – as here in a desultory half-hour – brook no serious opposition.

Changing old laws so they still work given new ones exist is seldom a matter for debate – Gordon Marsden certainly couldn’t find any serious issues despite displaying evidence of the extent he had tried to via an unexpected departure into the world of data protection. Even the potentially juicy news of a week’s deferment at the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee in the Lords was revealed to be based on nothing more exciting thank a request for more information.

As a result of these regulations – the Office for Students will be subject to the Regulators’ Code – and a debate highlight (with a low bar in place) was when Skidmore read from this to the other six MPs who were in attendance. Such is the state of Parliament in 2019 – drawn out and listless, waiting for an inevitable grisly end.

There is something of Edward VI in Skidmore – the boy king, happy to mouth pious principles but in reality subject to the legacy of his predecessors and the scheming of his advisors and legislators. In his book, “The Lost King of England”, Skidmore argues – via a great deal of primary sources – that Edward should be seen as a principal architect of the Reformation, but the reader is left with the impression that the work started and continued with others who commanded far more interest. Skidmore has no hand in the Higher Education and Research Act, but he happens to have been on hand for the final stages of implementation.

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