Chris Skidmore: UK universities must embrace the future

Although his two stints as universities and science minister only added up to 400 days, Chris Skidmore has strong views about the challenges and opportunities that confront institutions as they are thrust to the forefront of the UK’s post-Brexit industrial strategy

March 5, 2020
Chris Skidmore

So, for a second time, I wave a ministerial farewell. My last departure, back in July, saw me venture off to the Department of Health for what turned out to be no longer than a summer placement scheme. Now, with the splitting of my role as minister for universities, science, research and innovation into two, it feels a bit more final.

Reshuffles are never easy – I’ve come out worse three times – but at least this one has given me the opportunity to pause and reflect. One of my greatest frustrations was that, across two ministerial stretches, I was only in post for less than 400 days. What I would have given for the four years that David Willetts had, or the three years of my predecessor turned successor turned predecessor, Jo Johnson.

“Why would you want that role?” I recall one MP asking me, “It’s bloody difficult.” It is. Among the issues I had to deal with were the impact of leaving the European Union on the sector; strikes and the pension disputes; the still unpublished review of the teaching excellence framework; the Augar review of student finance, which has recommended that the student fee cap be lowered to £7,500; the Office for National Statistics’ changes to student debt calculations which, in a stroke, added billions to the national debt; and the implementation of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which established the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation. The list goes on.

Yet the complexity and range of the brief – not forgetting you are also minister for space and intellectual property, and quickly need to develop an encyclopedic knowledge of scientific terminology – had always made it top of my list of “ideal jobs” in government. After all, I’d been a teaching assistant at the University of Bristol before becoming a politician; I was used to writing political history of the Tudor variety before I got sucked into the court at Westminster. I relished the opportunity to take on a role that required a Thomas Cromwell-level mastery of detail. 

Children play in a park near British Steel’s Scunthorpe works which was forced into liquidation in 2019

I arrived with a mission. Put simply, I felt that I had to try to steer the relationship between government and the sector into a better place. No more university-bashing for the sake of a few cheap headlines. What would be the point? It was clear to me that our universities are a world-leading success. We want them to be even stronger, more globally competitive, for the future, with the value of a UK degree being considered one of our vital assets.

Of course, that still means challenging the sector to do even better, but with a change in approach and a change of tone, I knew that I was more likely to enact real change, to encourage reform and to work productively on actual solutions, rather than simply sending out press releases calling for them.

Even in 400 days, you can achieve a lot. I’m proud of the work I did publishing the new International Education Strategy and International Research and Innovation Strategy; these have led to important changes to UK visa policies, both the return of the two-year post-study work visa and the introduction of the new “global talent” visa route, to be administered by UKRI.

The opportunity for further internationalisation of the UK's higher education sector and research and innovation base is one of the most exciting opportunities of the 2020s, and must be a driving force for my successors. It’s also why we need to continue a relentless focus on the quality of a degree – there are clear issues with unexplained grade inflation, for example, which have the potential to tarnish reputations if left unaddressed.

The greatest opportunity I recognised was for universities to harness themselves to the “2.4 per cent” agenda – the government's commitment to invest 2.4 per cent of UK GDP, both public and private, into research and development by 2027. Yes, much more money needs to be spent on development and in the private sector, but it is clear that where we are world-leading in discovery-led research – namely in our universities – we should back this to the hilt.

I’d seen a pattern of “challenge-led” research funding masking a decline in the basic science and research budget over the past 10 years, something I was determined to correct. I managed to secure the first real-terms increase in a decade for quality-related research funding: the research block grant that universities can spend however they see fit. I hope that, in the spending review this year, the vital importance of basic research funding will be recognised as we set out how we are going to double the public R&D investment from £9 billion to £18 billion a year by 2025, a commitment that was made in the Conservative manifesto for last year’s general election.

For this level of investment to make the difference it needs to – especially if the government is to make good on its pledge to “level up” across the UK – our universities must remain at the centre of this place-based agenda, as anchor institutions. Recent research I was shown indicating that 42 per cent of the local population has never even set foot in a university building, or had any contact whatsoever with the nearest university, reveals the scale of what I would term an opportunity – to weave universities into the fabric of local communities, strengthening their role.

This can’t be done top-down, however. Universities have to understand what local communities themselves want and need. That’s why I have been a strong advocate for knowledge exchange and its forthcoming measure, the knowledge excellence framework, as well as for the civic universities agreements funded by the UPP Foundation and Carnegie UK Trust, which aim to focus institutions' efforts to improve life in their cities and towns. These will allow the sector to reach a common understanding of how it can help deliver on the government’s priorities to improve the lives of communities that have felt “left behind”.

Top of the agenda will likely be closer involvement of universities in schools, to both raise attainment and widen university access. So much good work is already taking place – one of my rules for every speech I made was to highlight best practice – but the entire access and participation agenda will need to evolve further if the sector is to face one of the most damning statistics in higher education, that just 9 per cent of white working-class boys from the north east go to university.

In my focus on better data, I tried to end the use of POLAR data, based on postcodes, and to replace it with effective data on pupils receiving free school meals, which track them across their educational journey and into post-18 education. Once we have better data to make decisions on fair admissions, the further challenge will come in developing effective contextual offers set within a fairer and more transparent admissions process that doesn’t have to rely on wildly inaccurate predicted grades.

Chris Skidmore

However, getting students through the doors, I have always argued, must never be the sole focus, either of government or institutions. I attempted to set out a broader, more comprehensive “student transition, experience and progress” framework, which could inform the ongoing development of the OfS’ access and participation plans. This was to be underpinned by working with the sector, highlighting where unacceptable problems continue, but also recognising the need to adapt to the ever-changing needs of students and their learning environment. It’s why I made the welfare of disabled and visually impaired students, care-leavers and estranged students a focus of my attention – an inclusive campus will have considered all these students’ needs, and all students benefit from more effective management practice.

Equally, I chose to spend more of my time on real-life “points of contact” issues, such as better provision of student accommodation, which are key litmus tests of an institution’s ability to be truly student-focused. Transitioning from school to university is a crucial part of a student’s journey that we still need a stronger focus on if we are to improve retention rates and better address students’ mental health needs. 

The transition between undergraduate and postgraduate study, and then on to early career research, must also continue to be an emerging focus of government, especially if we are to deliver on our commitments to make the UK a “global science superpower”. Making people the focus of research investment was the theme of my first speeches on the 2.4 per cent agenda last year – and I was struck to learn that no government minister had made a speech specifically on postgraduate education since about 2003.

This topic sits uneasily between the Department for Education, which oversees universities, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which oversees science. However, if the UK is to have a joined-up strategy to deliver a pipeline of talent, I hope that the “Research People Strategy”, which I announced in January, will be pursued with vigour. We need tens of thousands of extra researchers in both industry and academia, and not all of them can come from abroad. Initiatives such as the 75 new centres for doctoral training in engineering and physical sciences announced in February, and the 550 Future Leaders Fellowships launched in 2018, are steps in the right direction, and together account for an investment of £1.7 billion. Nevertheless, we will need to align more closely with areas of focus in research and science investment, as we sought to do with the recent £300 million announcement to double the number of mathematics PhDs over the next five years. 

A scientist lowers biological samples into a liquid nitrogen storage tank at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute

This brings me back to the theme of the 2020s. Putting policy and intervention to one side, the single biggest feature of the decade will be the demographic uplift in student numbers, perhaps adding an extra 100,000-150,000 to the intake. Combine this with the desire to increase international student numbers to 600,000 by 2030. Is the sector ready? As recent shortages of accommodation have shown, I suspect not. What is needed is a period of stability, particularly around finances, so that universities can plan effectively for their future, rather than the current annual exercise of setting fees.

Of course, any such settlement could have conditions attached to it, notably on some of the issues around access and participation that I have raised, but also with regard to increased collaboration with further education and the provision of a greater variety of routes through post-18 education. In my first speech as universities minister, I spoke of my aspiration for “unity of purpose” between higher and further education by 2030, warning against pitting one against the other. After 400 days in the role, I am more convinced than ever of the role that universities can play alongside further education colleges in creating more sustainable local education ecosystems that prevent students from falling through the net, allowing for greater mobility across a range of local institutions. Course reform will be imperative to achieve this, but what has struck me is the passion of some of our most enthusiastic providers for even further innovation in this area.

At the same time, we need to end our obsession with post-18 education being just about 18-year-olds. We know that 80 per cent of the workforce will still be in work by 2030, so the development of more effective part-time and retraining packages will be essential, perhaps learning lessons from the Diamond Review, which has resulted in Wales’ offering more maintenance support for students than England does. 

I wish my successors, both in universities and science, the very best. They have an opportunity to fashion and lead an exciting agenda that is at the centre of the prime minister’s vision. Of course I would have loved to have been part of this, but I hope I have played my small part in helping to steer the sector through a difficult year and helping it recognise the huge opportunities that can lie ahead – if the initiative is seized, and university leaders are prepared to tell a positive, forward-facing narrative, rather than being always on the defensive.

Universities are not part of the problem, they are part of the solution. We need to hear more of that message, and I, for one, will continue to do everything I can to make sure that it is voiced – and heard. 

Chris Skidmore is the UK’s former minister for universities, science, research and innovation.

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Reader's comments (3)

Thank you Chris for your thoughtful and engaging piece. As you say Universities are part of the solution and I wish your colleagues in Government would adopt your wise words. Universities are part of an education and research eco-system that is all about changing futures. They are focused on opportunity and developing talent alongside seeking solutions to local and global challenges through research, enterprise, business and community engagement and of course bringing that to support outstanding learning. The future of our country rests on how well we educate and equip everyone to face-up to a rapidly changing world full of opportunity and challenge. The continued 'attack' on universities in the UK by Government and the Press is viewed internationally as quite odd. Why would you damage one of our 'world-class' export industries. I will leave Government Ministers and their advisers to reflect on that! Thank you for your support of those 400 days. You made a difference and were a great advocate of what we do. Please keep on banging the drum......eventually others will follow! Steve West, Vice-Chancellor of UWE,Bristol
Thank you for this piece, Chris. Sadly it demonstrates why you lost the job - you were far too competent. The endless efforts by ministers and the media to demonize a world-leading sector that changes lives, improves society and boosts the UK's international reputation is so unhelpful and self-defeating. The sector may not have been a great fan of government policy, but in championing HE you made a real difference. Hoping your successor brings a similar commitment. Luke M
It is regrettable that universities have not been able to resolve their own problems with respect to students mounting indebtedness, study- workplace linkages, increasing the percentage of minorities as professors, accepting more students from minority groups in order to expand diversity and inclusion, conducting research to reduce social and economic problems, prioritizing STEM initiatives and purposefully ignoring the humanities while proclaiming that higher education is instrumental in improving the state of humanity. Universities must uphold the values within their walls one that they have espoused and taught to students, that of objectivity in order to have any hope of raising their credibility. More ministers like Chris Skidmore are needed.

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