Where’s the minister’s vision focused?

Sam Gyimah was never going to throw new light on the Office for Students when he spoke last week at its inauguration. It was never his project, and after its early stutters he probably just wanted to get through the day as uneventfully as possible.

But his speech was enlightening nonetheless, for the evidence it provided of a minister getting to grips with his brief. Proclaiming Gyimah’s desire to be ‘a minister for students’ as well as minister for universities, it was in part personal, in part naïve, and in part troubling.

The speech’s greatest howler, the assertion ‘that universities need to act in loco parentis’, has been debunked once, twice, on Wonkhe. To be generous, this suggests an admirably deep commitment to students’ welfare; to be critical, it positions the minister alongside so many other critics of universities, identifying a few problems and coming up with an answer that kind of feels right. Intentionally or not, indeed, this speech says rather a lot about the current state of higher education policy.

Where did he get that idea?

Like so much recent public discourse about higher education, Gyimah leans heavily on anecdote and popular politics. In his first two months in office, he has prioritised meetings with students, listening to ‘their hopes and concerns’. This leads him to a range of personal revelations, from the scale of mental health problems on campus, through the attainment gap for ethnic minority students, and on to some statements of the dazzlingly obvious. ‘One student,’ he says, ‘told me that above all … they valued excellent teaching.’

Yes, we could have told him all that, yet there is no harm in learning through engagement and dialogue. What is more worrying for me is that he appears to have little interest in other forms of learning. Many politicians will sprinkle speeches with quotes from social theorists, or references to key books and reports. Gyimah surely must have noticed, for instance, that one of his predecessors, David Willetts, has published rather a weighty volume on universities. But there’s not much indication in the speech that he has read anything beyond the ‘credible commentators’ he mentions, who have turned a critical (and often lazy-eyed) gaze upon universities in newspaper columns and social media over the past year. Quite how they become ‘credible’, in Gyimah’s eyes, is not clear: maybe by saying the same things over and over, or because he’s reading them instead of the evidence-based literature.

His willingness to settle for the word of popular critics leads Gyimah to the only hard statistic in the speech. ‘The most recent HEPI survey,’ he tells us, ‘showed that 34% of students feel they are getting poor value from their courses.’ I wonder sometimes whether those at the Higher Education Policy Institute are embarrassed by the caricature their ‘Student Academic Experience Survey’ has become (‘ah yes,’ they’re told, ‘that’s the “value for money” survey.’) It also strikes me as odd that the minister should not bother to look beyond this figure. The profile of the National Student Survey – completed by roughly twenty times as many students as the HEPI survey, and over many more years – is maybe as low outside universities as it is high inside them. Might that be because it tells more nuanced stories?

Trust us: we’re doing stuff

Maybe it would be unfair to expect a new universities’ minister to present his party’s policy as coherent. After all, nobody else has managed to do so. Nonetheless, this speech provides some eye-watering moments: such as the segue from a paragraph boasting how the government have ‘put universities on a sustainable financial footing’, to another that begins: ‘this year, we are doing more. We have frozen student fees.’ If that’s Gyimah’s idea of action, we might all settle down for a doze.

In line with his ‘credible commentators’, Gyimah presents universities as resistant to the ‘winds of change’, but struggles to put his finger on precisely how. Is it ‘free speech’, perhaps. He doesn’t choose to elaborate. Is it ‘decolonizing the curriculum’? Well, he just tosses that one out there, as you do, never caring to tell us whether there should be more or less colonialism. Is it ‘top pay’, perhaps? In all, there’s a sense of someone ticking off a list of topical issues, with little sense of how he, as a minister, might approach them more meaningfully than someone who has just dashed out 1,000 words for The Telegraph. For these winds of change have been fanned largely by the pages of newspapers, which in turn tend to quote ministers, and so the myopic cycle continues.

This is also a worryingly limited vision of higher education. When Gyimah speaks of ‘students’, he almost always means undergraduate students. Moreover, his statement that ‘the brightest and the best [students] from around the world are queuing up to study here’ will surprise many people. On the one hand, it echoes a line we’ve heard before from the government – and rather hoped not to hear again – that only the ‘brightest and best’ people from overseas really matter to us. On the other hand, it reeks of complacency at a time when his own government places unnecessary barriers in the way of international students.

The speech also leaves one wondering, if Gyimah styles himself minister for students, who might be the minister for research. It does not ignore research; indeed it includes the (unevidenced) assertion that we have seen ‘the largest increases in research spending for 40 years’. But, Gyimah offers no comment on how research spending might benefit students, just as he avoids any reflection on the distinctive combination of research and education that shapes universities.

Gyimah’s UK university system is also gloriously insular. We are, he boasts ‘a global superpower in HE’: as though we have our top universities trained on our enemies like Trident missiles. He dodges questions of international collaboration, which is perhaps the greatest single determinant of research quality. A ‘successful post-Brexit future’, for Gyimah, ‘depends on harnessing all the creativity, ingenuity and excellence in our universities’. Many academics might suggest that access to European research funding and academics would help a little as well.

Maybe this speech came too early for Gyimah. For those of us who might meet him on his national tour, however, it indicates some areas where he still has some learning to do. It can only be hoped that he is willing now to listen and read more widely, beyond that circle of ‘credible commentators’ who have done so much to warp perceptions of higher education.

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