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Who are Scotland’s new ministers?

The new First Minister’s reshuffle sees changes to education secretary and higher education minister. Michael Salmon plunges into the archives to find out what we should expect
This article is more than 1 year old

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

So farewell then, Shirley-Anne Somerville and Jamie Hepburn.

Humza Yousaf’s freshly installed cabinet has a new Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills – Jenny Gilruth – and a new Minister for Higher and Further Education, Graeme Dey. But apart from the immediate observation that they are the previous and previous-but-one transport ministers, what do we know about them?

Dey’s ahead

Graeme Dey is probably the first Scottish higher education minister not to have attended university – it depends a bit on how you define the role. His background is in journalism, most notably in sports reporting, and he became an MSP in 2011.

He’s held ministerial office twice before – first as Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, and then as Minister for Transport, a position he resigned in January 2022 over ill health. Interestingly, he’s now been appointed to the joint role of Minister for Higher and Further Education and Minister for Veterans, a mixing of responsibility that has raised suspicions among some that he might be more interested in the latter role, given his previous experience.

Looking back for his previous pronouncements on higher education, we can spot the odd example of advocacy for both students and staff from his time on the backbenches. In 2014 he was pushing to ensure colleges had “efficient, democratic and active student associations” – as opposed to having the student voice “hand-picked by management”. In 2015 he was calling for “serious consideration” of UCU proposals for elected university governing body chairs, student and trade union representation on governing bodies, and an agreed definition of academic freedom.

He also defended Erasmus post-Brexit, which might give some cheer to those waiting for the long anticipated Scottish replacement scheme. Admittedly his contribution primarily cited its benefit to football in Scotland through the funding of training camps, but he did also speak favourably of language learning and cultural exchange.

On the committee

In March 2022, he joined the Education, Children and Young People Committee, so we should certainly expect him to know what to look out for on the ministerial plate, though the big inquiry over this period has been into Scotland’s further education sector. A recent intervention saw him label one university’s approach to pensions for lower-paid staff as “cack handed”.

On hearings on universities last autumn, we can detect a degree of ministerial rehearsal (and a notable divergence from those early interventions above). His quizzing of Jamie Hepburn over student accommodation could charitably be described as gentle – “how optimistic are you that the work can be progressed?” – whereas he grilled representatives of UCU Scotland and NUS Scotland over where exactly they expected the government to find the funds for all the changes they were calling for.

This, keen eyes might notice, was a regular refrain of his predecessor, with Hepburn even using his final outing as higher education minister to look forward to hearing the opposition say where the money will come from.

One final news item – unrelated to higher education, but exceedingly important to share – concerns Dey’s tabling of a parliamentary motion to congratulate a daycare centre on its new seating. Noteworthy in itself, of course, but it was the text that caught attention. In saying he “hopes its users enjoy making use of the new seats,” an unfortunate typo saw a stray “t” append itself to the start of the word “its”, leading to the headline “Dey’s boob” in The Sunday Post.

Highly rated

New education secretary Jenny Gilruth, by contrast, has a multitude of links to universities. Aside from an undergraduate degree (University of Glasgow, sociology and politics) and a PGDE from University of Strathclyde, she’s also married to a University of Glasgow staff member – Kezia Dugdale, director of the John Smith Centre for Public Service (and yes, former leader of the Scottish Labour Party and I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! contestant). Plus her mother is journal manager of The Philosophical Quarterly, out of University of St Andrews.

Yet Gilruth’s focus is expected to be on schools, and really it’s no surprise given her pre-politics career as a teacher of modern studies and school textbook author. Reviews of her pedagogy on a “rate my teacher” website, dug up by the press after her 2016 election, position her as firm but effective.

As Minister for Europe and International Development, she spoke up for EU research collaboration and worried about “the cream of our research talent walking away.” She then filled Graeme Dey’s shoes as transport minister for just over a year. Both supported Humza Yousaf in his bid to be First Minister.

The bigger picture

This final point could be the most significant at this stage for policy-watchers. Gilruth and Dey are loyalists, in keeping with the wider continuity pitch Yousaf has made to continue Sturgeon’s work and legislative priorities. Both Somerville and Hepburn have been reshuffled upwards, suggesting no dissatisfaction with how they had been carrying out their roles.

So business as usual then. But will that be possible?

On the same day as the leadership results, Universities Scotland published a consultation response that was something of a cri de coeur for the sector, criticising the government’s “de facto choice to disinvest from higher education.” The full document compares the change in real terms to higher education funding for various “advanced small economies” of the sort the SNP is keen to position the nation as – and the big drop in Scotland since 2008 stands in contrast to almost all other putatively similar small European economies, in a way that will come as no surprise to those within the Scottish sector.

Indeed, Humza Yousaf has already promised a forthcoming plan to “boost innovation”, one of the few university-adjacent policy flavours to come out of an HE-agnostic leadership contest. So perhaps it will be possible to make the case that the steep decline in funding for teaching and research over this period is damaging Scotland’s economic output (though universities across the UK nations have been struggling to get traction with this idea for a good while).

But the big policy decisions in Scottish higher education in recent history are not associated with higher education ministers, or even education secretaries, but rather with the very top of the government, whether it’s free tuition, an extremely ambitious widening access regime, or just plain old cash.

This was characteristic of policy and decision-making under Nicola Sturgeon, with power wielded among a small group, and there’s a wider question of whether new ministers and cabinet secretaries will have a particularly loud voice in some of these big picture conversations.

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