New year, new universities minister

Cabinet reshuffle offers universities the chance of a relationship reset before they are likely caught in the first swell of a global wave of funding reviews

January 18, 2018
Street cleaner outside Downing Street
Source: Getty

“Farewell unis and science – our greatest national asset and best thing about this country.”

The fondness of Jo Johnson’s goodbye, issued via Twitter after he was moved on from his ministerial perch last week, may have surprised some in UK higher education.

His has been a tumultuous tenure, with huge changes pushed through in short order – including the introduction of the teaching excellence framework, regulatory overhaul and launch of the Office for Students, and the restructuring of research under UK Research and Innovation.

On our website, and in our opinion pages this week, we have perspectives both on Johnson’s reign and the to-do list that awaits his successor Sam Gyimah.

One thing that the reshuffle does allow is a reset of the relationship that the sector has with the department: for good or for bad.

An accusation made by critics of the former education secretary Justine Greening when she was also moved on last week was that she had been too close to teachers and schools – too unwilling to pick fights and light fires.

No such claim could be made of Johnson, whose tender farewell belied the fact that he had ruffled feathers on an industrial scale with his action-packed two and a half years in charge.

Towards the end of that time some of the targets had become increasingly populist, with Johnson swinging his full weight behind the right-wing press agenda on free speech in particular.

The early pronouncements of the OfS have been heavily focused on the topic and Johnson’s last major speech as universities minister was also on free speech.

The fact that students have been no platforming speakers for generations (as Laurie Taylor pointed out to me the other day, thinking back to his time at York in the 1970s) and that universities have precious little control over the students’ unions that are taking the contentious decisions, seemed to be overlooked a little too easily.

It’s unlikely that these issues will go quiet, but the arrival of a new ministerial team does pave the way for a likely shift of focus to the “major review” of funding that Theresa May announced last autumn.

Johnson and Greening were not keen on the idea – indeed, they were out of the loop when the announcement was made. This may be one of the reasons that the decks were cleared.

But the review, when it comes, will be part of a global trend; whether you look to the US (as we do in our cover story this week) or Australia (as we do in our opinion pages), funding issues are bubbling vigorously across the world’s leading university systems.

As was pointed out in last week’s Times Higher Education, in the UK, student debt has been forecast to make up about 20 per cent of future national debt. In the US, the affordability crisis continues to rage in the for-profit sector, while the fabled public systems crumble. And in Australia, the boom years of the demand-led funding system appear to be over, the cost too much for the state to bear.

These are issues of fundamental significance to the future of higher education worldwide, and put the squalls that have been such a feature of the debate in recent months in context.

According to a survey of UK university leaders this week, the majority feel that the annus horribilis endured by universities in 2017 was primarily the result of politically motivated attacks.

They are right, up to a point. But again, you don’t have to look too far to put these squabbles into context, and the chilling political situation facing academics in Turkey – which we also report on in our news pages – offers a reminder not just how bad things can get, but how bad they are already in some parts of the world.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: A new hand on the tiller

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