It would be nice to believe that Ed Miliband was thinking serious thoughts about higher education policy when he replaced Shabana Mahmood with Liam Byrne as Labour’s shadow universities minister.
But that might be stretching it. In fact, it seems that the change was the result of a series of domino effects – some possibly unexpected – set in motion by the Labour leader’s desire to demote Mr Byrne from his position as shadow work and pensions secretary.
There are differing views on what impact, if any, Mr Byrne’s appointment will have on Labour’s biggest higher education challenge – formulating a fees and funding policy.
Some warn that the sector may have ended up with a poor result: a shadow minister who may be inclined to “sulk” after his demotion. However, others see his experience as a plus.
Mr Byrne, viewed as a Blairite and stripped of responsibility for Labour’s policy review last year, is at the ideological margins of the party under the more left-wing Mr Miliband.
By contrast, the highly rated Ms Mahmood is part of the “One Nation” circle surrounding the leader.
Instead of being banished to the backbenches in this month’s reshuffle, Mr Byrne was offered the universities brief – a post outside the shadow Cabinet – as consolation.
Some suggest that the leader’s office was surprised that Mr Byrne, a former chief secretary to the Treasury, accepted the lesser post.
When the offer was accepted, the party had to find Ms Mahmood another position. She was promoted to shadow exchequer secretary.
In 2011, Labour announced a policy to lower tuition fees to £6,000 if it were in power. There are suggestions that Ms Mahmood has argued that the policy should be dropped – but that Mr Miliband supports it.
According to some, Labour’s policy is now settled internally, meaning there would be nothing for Mr Byrne to do on that score.
However, others dispute this account, suggesting that agreement has yet to be secured with Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, on the funding policy.
While Ms Mahmood had two policy advisers working for her, it is thought that Mr Byrne won’t have any. And the brief has been expanded: whereas Ms Mahmood was shadow universities and science minister, Mr Byrne, as shadow universities, science and skills minister, also has responsibility for further education.
Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE and former special adviser to Labour’s John Denham in his time as universities secretary, highlighted Mr Byrne’s experience in government in “challenging and complicated policy areas”.
He said that Mr Byrne “knows his way around spreadsheets and complex accounting rules, so the loan book…issues will be nothing new. He’s an impressive performer in Parliament, so his appointment could make for some interesting debates with David Willetts and Vince Cable.”
However, Mr Westwood added that Mr Byrne “has taken on a very big brief” and “is going to have his work cut out – as well as a very busy diary” in the run-up to the 2015 general election.