Wonkfest preview: yes, minister?

On Tuesday afternoon, Sam Gyimah will sit down in front of the Wonkfest18 audience for a fireside chat with Wonkhe founder and Editor-in-Chief Mark Leach.

Appointed on 9 January, we’ve been watching Gymiah’s progress and his brief carefully, looking at his first speech, his inbox, and even his apps. But here, to help set the scene for his appearance at Wonkfest, we’re going to do Sam Gyimah’s hypothetical Desert Island Discs for him – the eight songs, one book, and one luxury that he’d (probably) choose.

Disc 1: Kiss me, Sixpence None The Richer

Gyimah has neither the political nor economic arithmetic behind him to be a reformer like his predecessor, instead having to implement the Jo Johnson-overseen pet projects of OfS, UKRI, TEF and KEF. The major review that helped him secure his position (as his predecessor went down in flames trying to block it), has also tied his hands. After ONS and the Augar-led panel report, there will be big questions for Gyimah to answer about how to implement real reform of the funding system, navigate the post-Brexit politics to implement it and not put universities at risk in the process. There are also high expectations that the review will give the government the firepower to amend the system for part-time and mature students, a more coherent tertiary system, maintenance grants and more. It’s a maze, and how he navigates it will likely define Gyimah’s legacy as minister.

Disc 2: College Boy, J. Cole

Less of a reformer, Gyimah is perhaps more of a crusader, coming to campuses to put forward his party’s case to students and support student Conservative associations. It’s not clear yet if he’s wrested the hearts of the 35s and under from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but the campaign will heat-up ahead of the next general election in which universities and their towns are likely to be battlegrounds. Strap in.

Disc 3: Kids, MGMT

Gyimah appointed himself the “minister for students” during the “age of the student”, but that doesn’t stop him fuelling the “generation snowflake’ narrative from time-to-time. It’s confusing stuff. To some audiences he keeps calling for universities to be “an assault on the senses” for students, to other audiences he says universities should be in loco parentis. This is the soundtrack heard by millions of university students and staff every year. But which messages are cutting through?

Disc 4: History, One Direction

On freedom of speech, the minister has warned of a “chilling effect” and a “dangerous monoculture” on campuses. To understand Sam’s passion for the subject we have to look at history – he chaired the Oxford Union as a student and experienced his own freedom of speech row when he controversially invited the then Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq to address it. He debated pornography and birth control on TV with Bob Monkhouse and was subsequently described as “oafish” by The Mirror, and deemed one of the “concatenation of puffed-up, prematurely pompous young Tories” by The Independent.

Disc 5: Paint It Black, The Rolling Stones

Gyimah has picked up and run with the campaign to support student mental health, writing to tell every vice chancellor there is “no negotiation” on this issue. Yet, despite referencing a “mental health crisis” in universities, critics argue that he’s yet to discuss how marketisation, competition and consumerism may be contributing to the problem. And there are outstanding questions about the role that government or its regulators should play in the issue.

Disc 6: Champion Requiem, Mos Def

Despite being a Cameron-remainer, Gyimah knows he has to tread carefully with the new boss. But has he been fighting the sector’s corner in the negotiations? We hope so. Are international students still included in net immigrant targets? Yes. Are there some positive signs on international staff? Yes. Has research funding been secured? Kind of. Paul Nurse famously dressed-down the minister on the BBC Today programme over Brexit, but will Gymiah surprise us all with some big wins for the sector as the final negotiations over our post-Brexit future begin to bite?

Disc 7: Shiny Things, Tom Waits

Gyimah clearly seems to enjoy the science side of his brief. Why wouldn’t he? He gets to occasionally reannounce industrial strategy funding for exciting-sounding projects, often with accompanying photo opportunities. And there’s always really fun kit to play with. But there are hard questions – like whether all institutions get a fair shot at the funding. And with the 2.4% of GDP target for 2027 now talked-down as a “stretch target”, will Gyimah really secure more public funding for university research in the long-term?

Disc 8: Good boy, G dragon & Taeyang

Gyimah knows how to play the game to get ahead. Of 1,670 votes in Parliament, he’s voted against the government just 11 times. However, his attendance could be a cause for concern, dropping from 92.4% to 89.1% to 82.% over the last three parliaments. Remember that DfE is insistent that every single day missed from school has an impact on attainment, with the current school average 95.5%. Assuming he’s on time and tows the party lines on HE this Tuesday, what might he have in his policy duffel bag for the Wonkfest18 audience?

Book: Don Quixote, Cervantes

In addition to the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible, we think Don Quixote is the book Gyimah would take to a desert island. This second-generation immigrant was born to a single mother from Ghana. He studied philosophy, politics and economics at Somerville College, University of Oxford. After running into a spot of cash-flow bother, his college converted his fees into a loan, payable after graduation. And, of course, he became president of the Oxford Union in the Michaelmas Term of 1997.

After university, he spent five years as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, before setting up a number of companies in the training, recruitment and internet sectors. He was voted CBI Entrepreneur of the Future in 2005. After working with The Bow Group, he was elected the Conservative MP for East Surrey in 2010. Subsequent political roles were on prisons at the Ministry of Justice, childcare and education at DfE, and at the Cabinet Office. He was also a government whip and Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Cameron. Gyimah is married and has two children.

Luxury: A smartphone

Although not normally allowed by Kirsty Young, we think the luxury Gyimah would want to take to a desert island is his trusty smartphone, replete with all his favourite university course-choosing apps. After much delay, the competition winners should be announced … at some point. When they are finally out, we don’t expect the minister’s picks will account for DfE-commissioned research findings that graduate earnings are caused by factors beyond higher education, or that TEF awards could be based on data as much as eight years old. Maybe Gyimah’s kids will get better advice when it’s their turn to apply?

Fictional radio shows aside, Wonkfest18 is the minister’s big opportunity to look ahead and share his vision for the sector (backed by some realistic solutions to the challenges it faces). Tune in on Tuesday…

Wonkfest 2018 takes place at Ravensbourne University London, 5-6 November. You can also follow #Wonkfest18 on Twitter.

Leave a Reply