Skidmore rejects ‘university-bashing’ and urges funding stability

Ex-minister also calls for ‘period of stability’ in English funding

March 5, 2020
Chris Skidmore

Chris Skidmore says he sought to bring an end to government “university-bashing” in his time as universities and science minister and calls for “a period of stability” in English higher education funding.

Mr Skidmore draws some key conclusions from his time in office in an article for Times Higher Education this week, following his sacking in Boris Johnson’s reshuffle on 13 February.

His second spell in the post, which began in September 2019, made him the sixth appointment as universities and science minister since July 2014.

“One of my greatest frustrations was that, across two ministerial stretches, I was only in post for less than 400 days,” Mr Skidmore writes, highlighting the range of issues he had to deal with, including the impact of Brexit on the sector, the Augar review of English post-18 education and the “unpublished review of the teaching excellence framework”.

In Mr Skidmore’s first spell as minister, he was appointed as successor to Sam Gyimah, who had made repeated media interventions criticising universities over free speech.

Mr Skidmore writes: “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.”

UK universities are “a world-leading success”, he goes on, and should be made “even stronger, more globally competitive” with “the value of a UK degree being considered one of our vital assets”. A “change in tone” was “more likely to enact real change” than “press releases”, he writes.

The “greatest opportunity” for universities is “to harness themselves” to the government’s drive to increase research investment, Mr Skidmore argues.

“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,” he says.

Looking ahead, Mr Skidmore suggests that demographic change in the coming decade could add “an extra 100,000-150,000 to the [student] intake”, alongside the drive to increase international recruitment.

“Is the sector ready? As recent shortages of accommodation have shown, I suspect not,” he writes.

Mr Skidmore, known to be an opponent of the Augar review’s plans to cut tuition fees, which many fear would mean a reduction in university funding, adds: “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.”

At a time when some in the Conservative Party are concerned about the value of the expansion of higher education, or perceive universities as bastions of left-wing bias, Mr Skidmore concludes: “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.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Skidmore: give universities stability, not ‘bashing’

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