Sam Gyimah branded himself as England’s “minister for students as much as minister for universities” when he started the job in January. Five months on and after two appearances before committees of MPs and peers, we might have enough evidence to start judging what that means and how Mr Gyimah is faring as he grapples with key challenges including the government’s review of post-18 education funding and mitigating the impacts of Brexit on research.
The new minister, who, like his predecessor Jo Johnson, has a split brief ranging across the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, endured a slightly shaky debut before MPs on the education committee last month.
One Conservative described Mr Gyimah as having delivered an “OK performance” at the hearing, as having not yet mastered the brief and showing himself to be “quite traditionalist” in his attitudes to higher education.
There is a sense among some in the sector that Mr Gyimah shows less willingness or ability to get to grips with the detail of policy than Mr Johnson.
Perhaps that reflects a shift in the nature of the post, which now appears to be at least partly about promoting the Conservatives on campuses – giving the brief a more explicitly political element.
Mr Gyimah appears to have been handed this remit from higher up, writing in The Times in January that it is “no secret that the Conservative Party struggled” with younger voters “at the last election and it is only through positive and persistent engagement and responding to their needs that we can win their trust”.
He also said: “We must also get out there, outside Westminster, into what used to be ‘no-go’ areas and defend our record while showing how we want to do better. We must continue to call out Jeremy Corbyn and prevent him monopolising the student space.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former Conservative parliamentary candidate, said that it was “unconstitutional but politically astute for Sam to rebrand himself as the minister for students. No one expects the majority of students to swing over to the Conservatives overnight. But there is a sense among Sam’s generation of Tories that political life on campus has sometimes been a bit stifling and that more alternative voices should be heard.
“The goal will be about making sure students give Tories the time of day and listen to their arguments, even if many of them may not vote for a centre-right party until long after they have left higher education.”
This all dovetails with the government’s review of post-18 education – set in motion by Theresa May in a post-election panic about the support that Mr Corbyn scored with younger voters through his pledge to scrap tuition fees in England.
In fairness to Mr Gyimah, being “minister for students” also has a policy angle – the logical culmination of Mr Johnson’s focus on students as consumers and the drivers of a higher education market, embodied in the switch to the Office for Students as England’s regulator.
Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said that Mr Gyimah has been “active” while being “stretched across a busy and quite high-profile brief”.
She noted that, alongside the government’s review of post-18 education funding, on the science side Mr Gyimah has to handle high-level political interest in the industrial strategy and the target – set out in the 2017 Conservative manifesto – to achieve R&D spend of 2.4 per cent of GDP within 10 years.
Mr Johnson set up a forum on science and Brexit, at which he would talk with senior figures from the research and higher education sectors about what they wanted the government to secure in negotiations on the UK’s departure from the European Union.
“I think Sam has been quite active in taking it [the forum] over and listening to what people have to say, and taking those messages onwards through government,” said Dr Main.
Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester and a former adviser to John Denham in his time as Labour secretary of state responsible for universities, highlighted the post-18 education funding review and said of the outlook for Mr Gyimah: “Realistically, many of the biggest decisions are going to made higher up – especially with a PM and a No 10 that wants to control and intervene much more.”
He also noted that Mr Johnson “had some very strong civil servants in place – Polly Payne, Ruth Hannant [who formerly shared the post of DfE director of higher education reform] and Iain Mansfield [former DfE deputy director] – all with lots of institutional memory, and they’ve all moved on, leaving Sam with a less experienced team”.
Professor Westwood added that the key task of successfully steering through the post-18 education review and subsequent policy – which would amount to “political, technical, systemic” success, “probably in that order” – would take “some doing, especially given the expectations that have been raised”. But that task is “in the medium term so he can afford to be out and about making friends and meeting stakeholders. He’ll definitely need them”.
Others feel that the implications of the switch from the old Higher Education Funding Council for England to the OfS have not yet been grasped by the sector, with big issues about how teaching and research – the latter area now the responsibility of UK Research and Innovation – interrelate.
A new, inexperienced minister with a wide-ranging brief, who did not steer through the legislation setting these changes in motion, faces a tough task trying to wrestle with all this.
The OfS, endowed with far-reaching new powers by Mr Johnson, has often been criticised as giving ministers the ability to intervene more directly in the running of autonomous universities.
Perhaps a more hands-off minister not obsessed with the day-to-day running of the OfS is best in these circumstances. Or perhaps someone with a sure grasp of policy detail is needed, to ensure that an OfS with the powers to be highly interventionist does not get into too many dangerous clashes with universities.