In an increasingly polarised political landscape select committees offer the opportunity to put aside party politics and collaborate across the political divide. With the government’s legislative agenda all but grinding to a halt, and the formal mechanisms of government in disarray over Brexit, the parliamentary committees are one of the few spaces in which MPs can engage with policy agendas in depth.

I ventured to Portcullis House to spend an hour with education committee member and Member of Parliament for the Greater Manchester constituency of Bury North, James Frith MP, one of the beneficiaries of the unexpected swing to Labour in the 2017 General Election. I wanted to know how current policy debates about higher education are playing out among informed MPs, and how the sector comes across to a parliamentarian trying to advance his own policy agenda.

Frith doesn’t have a university in his constituency to feed him a steady diet of good news stories and invitations to open new buildings, so his view of the sector in its current form has been formed by his experience on the education committee and by his own views. “My politics on the power of higher education stems not from a first-hand account, but things like the legacy of the creation of the Open University, the white heat of technology under the leadership of Harold Wilson” he tells me. His experience of a childhood plagued by illnesses of various kinds that took a toll on his experience of secondary level education has given him a keen appreciation of the necessity of second chances and lifelong learning.

As it happens his maiden speech fell during a debate on university tuition fees, though he cautions me not to assign a great deal of significance to this. Though he believes that tuition fees were one of the hot-button topics of the 2017 election, along with social care and austerity, the speech focused less on fees and more on government’s responsibility to build alliances between education and industry, for the promotion of public wellbeing: “We must harness our assets: creativity, intuition, emotion, empathy and intelligence. In doing so, we must outbid the threat to jobs and livelihoods that automation poses for so many. We need a collaboration of all levels of education, research development, trade unions, business and new national industry, pulled together by the Government, jumpstarting the plan.”

Making an impression

We talk about the experiences he has had as a member of the education committee that have impressed him and informed his view of the value of the higher education sector. A visit to the SpiNNaker at the University of Manchester, a super-computer that mimics the human brain, made a particular impression, both for the extraordinary science underpinning the project, but also on the project’s funding. “That’s an amazing thing that there was this work ongoing that could drive capacity, innovation and technical gain within industry” he enthuses, “and we should really be doing more centralised funding, and essentially supplementing the work of the university as an economic pursuit, because the SpiNNaker machine is one example where it’s world-leading but they’re doing it with uncertainty on funding and a modest budget.”

Though Frith is keen to caveat his position with the view that learning is its own reward, it is clear that where his heart lies is in the capacity of higher education to drive economic growth and regeneration: “in helping creating new national industries – start up or helping to back or support big growth sectors and play a fundamental part in the creation of the next and new economy.” Currently the education committee is conducting an inquiry into the fourth industrial revolution, with a focus on ensuring all have opportunities to develop the skills required to take advantage of emerging technologies. It is not especially surprising, then, that if Frith has a criticism about universities it is that they should be forging much closer links with further education colleges. As a former head of a social enterprise providing careers advice and guidance he has some experience of the labyrinthine options notionally available to those hoping to pursue a pathway other than the traditional one, and points out that universities have a well-defined market and captive audience for their educational offer, whereas further education colleges do not.

James Frith at the Education Select Committee

He would like to see universities and colleges not only joining forces “in that bid for student destination” but collaborating in creating greater equity of student experience in college-based and university-based pathways. “I would like to see a far stronger emphasis and incentive for HE organisations in providing FE support. So local colleges feeding in not just as a sort of supply chain for students, but as an empowerment for the students that are studying at an FE college to access university-grade assets for everything from the social aspects, to the science facilities, and university campus experiences.”

Value for money

We turn to the prospect of the Augar review and Frith refers me to last year’s education committee inquiry into value for money in higher education. As a committee member, he tells me, he is not impressed by defensive or dismissive stances on the topics under discussion. He is keenly aware of pressures on funding across the public sector and feels that the higher education sector, relatively protected in financial terms, needs to make a stronger case for the public element of its funding: “I think the more universities are thinking about value-for-money student experience and life beyond the university campus – employability, job prospects, livability, standard of living etc – the better the sector looks.”

I ask for an example of where the sector’s representatives have failed to make their case and conversation quickly turns to vice chancellor pay. He says he can barely believe “the tin ear of vice-chancellors that sat in front of us and dismissed at a time of a near decade of austerity any sense of concern, disappointment and in some instances outrage that they would be getting three to four or five hundred thousand pound salaries.” After a pause, he adds, “Oh, and Oxford and degree apprenticeships.” I put the standard sector case that degree apprenticeships shouldn’t be expected to form part of Oxford’s distinctive mission, an argument that he considers thin: “I think if your peers are, having reviewed it, committed to it, then I think that there’s reason to look at it. To dismiss it out of hand without any of those considerations featured in the argument was just pretty obnoxious.”

It’s clear that while Frith is fully bought in to the value and worth of higher education in principle, he is impatient with anything that looks like making excuses for not embracing higher education’s wider economic and social role. In common with many of his peers who seek political office, he is keen to see things change quickly, and argues, “I think my generation of politicians’ is to restore people’s faith in politics and to be able to have that demonstrable link and direct line from experience as a constituency, to a change in policy.”

Bridging the party divide

The rebooting of the select committees in recent years have seen an increase in activity, and the emergence of a more inclusive, informal mode of evidence-gathering, in addition to the more formal hearings. Frith describes a session in which the parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities were seated next to MPs, rather than opposite them, which created a more conversational exchange of views. Though he welcomes the shift, noting that the committee can be “daunting” even for members, Frith confesses to enjoying the “quasi-judicial” accountability hearings where the government’s ministers are called up for questioning, because “we’ve got a job to do, we’ve got to remember that.”

I ask whether the current polarised state of politics, and the anger of the political debate around Brexit is making it harder to work with politicians from other parties. Frith acknowledges that there are times on the committee when he sits quietly while a political opponent pursues a line of questioning that goes against his own political instincts, but he believes that collaborating between politicians of different stripes on specific issues will shape the politics of the future. “The current state of politics and parliament will eventually come good. The fact that there is disagreement in-party and some common ground across party lines on Brexit can make for a more constructive environment.”

His attitude chimes with the longstanding drop-off in party political activity among the general public, and could be seen as a pragmatic response to an electorate that is more swayed by issues than by party ideology. I reflect that there could be wins to be had for universities that can tap into this new openness among moderate politicians to build cross-party alliances. Rebuilding faith in politics, Frith believes, is a matter of finding “common ground, not stoking division.” Something we could all do with a little more of in our politics.

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