After a busy two-and-a-half years as universities minister, Jo Johnson has been reshuffled. He has moved to the Department for Transport where he replaces veteran Conservative MP for South Holland and the Deepings, John Hayes.
It will mean many changes for Mr Johnson – but also one clear constant: he will not escape the gaze of Lord Andrew Adonis. The campaigning peer has been just as busy making life uncomfortable for transport secretary Chris Grayling – who remains in post following the reshuffle – as he has for those in the university sector in recent months.
Sir Richard Branson & Sir Brian Souter rejoicing that Chris Grayling remains Transport Secretary. Billions in it for them in bailouts, new contracts & reduced competition! I will be exposing all this in the weeks ahead #bailoutbritain— Andrew Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) January 9, 2018
But as Johnson departs, Sam Gyimah, MP for East Surrey, arrives in his place. Mr Gyimah, the now former prisons minister, is no stranger to the Department for Education, having served as a parliamentary under-secretary of state in the department between 2015 and 2016. He is a former investment banker (Goldman Sachs), and he (surprise surprise) read politics, philosophy and economics – you guessed it – the University of Oxford, where he was also president of the Oxford Union.
After his appointment was confirmed, we asked Times Higher Education's Twitter followers what issues they think Mr Gyimah should place at the top of his ministerial agenda, using the hashtag #DearSam. Unsurprisingly, there was no shortage of suggestions.
One issue raised was the inclusion of international students in net migration figures for the UK. Surely students studying here shouldn't count towards migration figures (meaning that if fewer students come it equates to progress towards the government's aim to cut immigration)?
It should be noted that while this is a longstanding bone of contention within higher education, this is actually an issue for the Home Office (which can actually remove students from such figures). However, it seems that many in the sector are keen to make sure that the new universities minister is aware of this vital issue.
#DearSam will you be supporting the Home Secretary in removing international students from immigration targets?— chris laity (@claitysan) January 9, 2018
#DearSam Will you support universites to compete effectively with counties around the world to attract international students who add considerable economic, academic and social value to our university campuses? Will you remove international students from net migration?— Linda Cowan (@LCpathways) January 9, 2018
Some expressed concern about how the new minister's own background might inform his opinion of the higher education sector more widely...
#DearSam How will you educate yourself on how modern universities operate, how 99% are nothing like Oxford, and how to make sure that they thrive and survive in a very competitive World HE market ?— John Kirk (@OwlFiftyEight) January 9, 2018
....while others asked what Mr Gyimah (a Remain voter, for the record) might do to ensure that the fallout from Brexit does not do significant damage to the higher education sector.
The recent drop off in the number of part-time and mature students studying in the UK was also an issue that a number of tweeters wanted to see tackled. Former universities minister David Willetts has conceded that it was an unforeseen consequence of his tuition fee reforms, but what might the new minister do to address this hot topic?
#DearSam, congratulations on the new role. Lord Willetts recently expressed shock at incredible decline in HE part time study, will you follow the advice of Lord Browne and give the sector "special attention"? @timeshighered @SamGyimah pic.twitter.com/uCTognQmnC— Mark Brandon (@icey_mark) January 9, 2018
#DearSam how will you reverse the 50% decline in mature student participation in HE? And how will you prepare for the job displacement AI and robotics will create?— Alan Tuckett (@AlanTuckett) January 9, 2018
Others took a look at previous headlines made by Mr Gyimah, including his part in allegedly scuppering the progress of a new law to pardon all gay and bisexual men in England and Wales historically convicted of sexual offences that are no longer criminal when, during his time as justice minister, he spoke for such a period of time that the bill could not progress. He argued at the time that the proposed law did not give strong enough protections against men being accidentally pardoned for sex with a minor or non-consensual sex.
#DearSam welcome to your new post as Universities minister. Can you confirm your full support for LGBT+ staff and students, given your apparent opposition to 'gay pardon' in the past?— Trisha Greenhalgh #FBPE (@trishgreenhalgh) January 9, 2018
Meanwhile, there was a short and stark warning about the state of university pensions...
#DearSam Good luck with the USS.— Oliver Johnson (@BristOliver) January 9, 2018
... and, inevitably, questions regarding how he would approach the thorny issue of pay levels within the university sector.
The teaching excellence framework, and how it is used, should also be at the top of Mr Gyimah's in tray, according to some.
How will the subject level TEF enable a university committed to a broad based education like Keele demonstrate excellence #DearSam— Helen O'Sullivan (@osullihelen) January 9, 2018
#dearsam you understand that TEF doesn't actually measure "Teaching Excellence", right?— Zak Liddell (@zakliddell) January 9, 2018
There were also plenty of tweets imploring the new minister to ensure he does all he can to protect the full range of subject areas within UK higher education.
#DearSam how will you redress the falling numbers of applications for health (& social care) programmes following the withdrawal of the NHS bursary. H&SC services need skilled, resilient professionals whose salaries reflect their capabilities— sian burgess (@mrsmcinburtott) January 9, 2018
#DearSam Welcome to your new job. How will you ensure UK stays at the leading edge of international science and produces highest quality graduates and postgraduates, who are not crippled by debt?— Colin Macpherson (@VolColMac) January 9, 2018
#DearSam: STEM is important, but will you be a vocal advocate for the essential skills provided by humanities and interdisciplinary degrees?— Gavin Schwartz-Leeper (@gavinsl) January 9, 2018
Another common theme was the marketisation of higher education, and how the minister would seek to ensure that this did not impact on the value for money received by students, and the importance of non-commercial activities within universities.
#DearSam How do you balance the intentions for higher education to operate as a market with the huge amount of metrics that have the potential to cause Unis to become more and more homogeneous as they chase a perceived 'best practice' which is often just a safe, easy approach?— Tom Snape (@Tom_KeeleSU) January 9, 2018
#dearsam Are you going to use TEF and OfS as mechanisms to empower the students and their voice, or cement the idea that students are no more than overcharged customers in a marketised system?— Zak Liddell (@zakliddell) January 9, 2018
We are still keen to hear what message you would like to send to Sam Gyimah. To read all of the messages so far, and to tell us what issues you think should be at the top of the to-do list, follow the #DearSam hashtag on Twitter.
Chris Parr is digital and communities editor at Times Higher Education.
Update (11 January 2018): reaction from sector bodies
Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive, University Alliance:
“Sam Gyimah takes on the role at an important juncture. His top priority is likely to be getting the best deal for higher education and research in the Brexit negotiations. The government’s promised ‘major review’ into tertiary education also looms large – this must address the decline in mature and part time learners and ensure that the gains in HE participation in recent years are not undermined.
"Technical education is likely to remain high on the government’s agenda – to give technical and professional education the recognition and prestige it deserves, it is important that those taking this route are able to pursue their studies at graduate and postgraduate level. It is a credit to Jo Johnson that he oversaw a boost to the science and innovation budget, and we hope that this will remain a priority for the minister.”
Dave Phoenix, chair of MillionPlus and vice-chancellor of London South Bank University:
“A good place to start would be with the clear recognition and reaffirmation that the strength of UK higher education lies in its diversity and the quality of the sector's contribution to teaching, research and innovation. Modern universities are especially prevalent in terms of flexible learning for all, widening access and engagement with employers and SMEs. We’ve long held the view that the government’s goals on skills, productivity, regional growth and social mobility can only be met by fully embracing what modern universities have to offer.
"The sector will always seek to further improve but as the UK repositions post Brexit, championing universities and students is the only way to help the sector truly thrive in the years ahead.”
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union:
“He will of course have a busy in-tray and we are happy to work with people who are keen to defend our universities and colleges.” Ms Hunt said she “hoped he will be able to give details of what form the government’s major review of university funding will take and that he and new education secretary Damian Hinds will look again at the make-up of the board of the Office for Students.”
Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool:
The “promised review of tertiary education funding in England and establishing the new regulatory framework and Office for Students will likely be top of the new minister's in-tray,” said Dame Janet.
“Improving post-study work visas for international students, supporting universities’ role in promoting social mobility and securing our long-term participation in the European programmes Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ should also be priorities."