England’s new universities minister has said that he will not “beat up or needlessly berate the sector” and that he sees value for money as being about “much more” than graduate salary data.
Chris Skidmore, whose brief also includes a UK-wide remit as science minister, made the comments in his first speech in the post, on 31 January, in which he aimed to set out a “vision for the higher education of the future”.
His predecessor, Sam Gyimah, frequently attacked universities over free speech and a perceived political “monoculture” on campus, while many in the sector fear that universities have lost political confidence more generally.
Graduate earnings figures for certain courses and universities have become targets for some in the Conservative Party, including members close to Theresa May, who argue that too many students are entering higher education.
“My vision for our universities and colleges is a positive one,” Mr Skidmore told an audience at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. “I’m not going to be a minister who comes in and beats up or needlessly berates the sector.
“Instead, I want to restate my commitment…to work in partnership with you to ensure our higher education sector remains one that works for everyone and of which we can be proud in generations to come.”
Mr Skidmore also said he understood that this was “an unprecedented time of change”, highlighting Brexit implications for the sector and the “uncertainty caused by the ongoing review of post-18 education”.
The minister said he wanted to address the “burning injustices” cited by Theresa May when she came into office, highlighting gaps in higher education participation by region and by ethnicity, and the need to raise participation among disabled students and other underrepresented groups
But, referring to his background as a former history lecturer at the University of Bristol, Mr Skidmore said: “I fully appreciate the concept of institutional autonomy.”
On the role of Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data for earnings by subject and institution, the minister said that “an advanced analysis of this data is going to be crucial as we shape the sector going forward” – calling on the sector and academic researchers to help “explore how to make the most of this data”.
Mr Skidmore said he would set up a data advisory committee to ensure LEO data “are being used in the best way possible” and “that they are being used in context”.
The data have “given rise” to concerns about “the value for money of certain courses, disciplines and institutions”, the minister said.
But he added: “On this, I believe we need to take a step back and ask what exactly value for money means in the context of higher education.
“Successful outcomes for students and graduates are about much more than salary: if we are to define value purely in economic terms, based on salary levels or tax contributions, then we risk overlooking the vital contribution of degrees of social value, such as nursing or social care, not to mention overlooking the arts, humanities and social sciences – the very disciplines that make our lives worth living.”
Mr Skidmore also said that “although I am officially minister for science, I take great pride in wanting to be minister for the arts and humanities as well – disciplines which enrich our culture and society, and have an immeasurable impact on our health and well-being.
“As we move forwards into the future, the last thing I want to see is value judgements emerging which falsely divide the sciences and engineering from the arts, humanities and social sciences. To do so would be a travesty. Our future success depends on all these disciplines being completely intertwined.”