Interview with Paul Burstow

We talk to the former coalition government minister about the Liberal Democrats’ tuition fees U-turn and how Westminster can be an isolating work environment

December 3, 2015
Paul Burstow, City University London

Paul Burstow was the minister of state for care services during the first two years of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government and was the Lib Dem MP for Sutton and Cheam for just under 20 years before losing his seat in the May general election. During his time in government, he played a key role in shaping the 2014 Care Act. In October, he was appointed professor of health and social care at City University London.

Where and when were you born?
St Helier Hospital, in Carshalton, in May 1962.

How has this shaped you?
I grew up in Sutton, Southwest London. It was, and is, a nice and safe place to grow up.

How much of a departure is academia from politics?
I have enjoyed the change. In fact, it is less of a departure as it fits well with my curious nature and draws upon my 29 years of experience of elected office. 

What do you hope to achieve at City? Are you looking to cultivate a research profile for yourself?
My policy interests as an MP have always been around health and social care. My approach has always been research-based and working with other stakeholders to build a case for a policy. The professorship at City is about translating research into public policy and equipping the next generation of health leaders and managers with skills and insights in influencing public policy.

Now that you are on the outside looking in, what is the most pressing policy concern for the government?
In health and social care, I would pick out three. First, recent research has found that there will be a 200,000 shortfall in the care workforce by 2020 even in the best-case scenario. What is the plan to mitigate the impact of this on individuals and the wider economy? Second, the long-term sustainability of the NHS requires it to become more psychologically minded – that we apply a deeper understanding of behavioural and relational aspects to the management and delivery of health and care. Third, the fastest growing part of our population are the over 85s and yet we are building nowhere near enough attractive housing to have options for later life planning.

Are you pleased with your work in government or do you think there were things that you could have done better?
It was an incredible two and half years of my life. There is much that I look back on with pride: the overhaul of social care, setting the idea of parity of esteem between physical and mental health in law and returning public health to local government to better tackle the social determinants of ill health. I regret not insisting that social care spending be ring-fenced.

Are you concerned for the future of the NHS in light of cuts and creeping privatisation?
I am concerned about the future of the NHS because its long-term sustainability depends on its ability to shift from a 20th-century model of repair and cure [to]…a 21st-century model of prevention, psychologically minded, predictive and proactive heath[care] focused on people.

How damaging to the Lib Dems was Nick Clegg’s reneging on the tuition fees policy pledge after the coalition got into power?
Very. It became a defining moment that meant that Nick never got a hearing for anything else.

Do you think the criticism for the raising of tuition fees was justified?
In policy terms, no. But as an issue of trust, yes. With the benefit of hindsight, as the smaller coalition party we sustained lethal damage from the decision. Our coalition colleagues broke a number of their headline promises but were not so damaged.

How do you assess the Lib Dems’ position in the political landscape?
Resilient. In local government the party is already recovering lost ground; in the Lords we hold the balance of power. [Leader] Tim [Farron] has a tough job, but I believe that there is still a space for a liberal party in British politics. I think our recovery could be faster than many pundits currently believe.

If you were a prospective student facing £9,000 fees, would you go again or get a job?
I would take a long cold look at the university’s performance in terms of careers and employment. But I have no doubt of the benefits, both in terms of skills and long-term income growth, of higher education.

What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
The much stronger focus on research impact, on making the connection between world-class research and real-world application and impact on policy.

Have you had a eureka moment?
At a constituency surgery, a woman came to see me about children and young people’s mental health. She told me that half of lifelong mental health problems have their first signs in the teenage years. That was the spark that led to the children and young people’s mental health programme that I [worked on in government].

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Probably a bit too much time on the politics and not enough on the studies.

What do you do for fun?
Cooking and cycling, but not at the same time.

What’s your biggest regret?
That I went to a high school that had low expectations and did not know how to get the best out of me.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
I find Winston Churchill fascinating. He is that combination of flawed genius and inspirational leader.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
My work with and for constituents, trying to help solve their problems, is the best thing. The worst? Westminster can be a lonely place.

If you were universities minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
I would want to make sure that the health and well-being of students and staff was a priority.

john.elmes@tesglobal.com


Appointments

Christine Ennew has been appointed the next provost of the University of Warwick. Professor Ennew, who is currently provost and chief executive of the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus, will take up the position in August. One of her roles will be to lead on the development and delivery of academic strategy. She will also chair the committee responsible for oversight of academic developments and resources. “I am delighted to…play a key role in supporting and developing the full academic life of one of the UK’s leading universities,” she said.

An expert on child migration, who served as a lead researcher on a project examining the current refugee crisis, has recently been appointed reader at Edge Hill University. Zana Vathi, from the department of social sciences, was involved in research looking at the strain put on developing countries such as those in the Western Balkans, through which migrants are travelling to reach developed nations.

Leeds Beckett University has appointed five professors to its Faculty of Arts, Environment and Technology. Dorothy Monekosso joins as professor of computer science from Bournemouth University, Jiamei Deng joins from Kingston University as professor of artificial intelligence, control and energy, Robert Shail moves to the university from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David as the first professor of film, Hissam Tawfik arrives as professor of computer science – he previously worked at Liverpool Hope University and the University of Salford – and Simon Morris joins from Teesside University as professor of art.

Iain Robertson has joined the University of the Highlands and Islands Centre for History team as a reader. He is currently reader at the University of Gloucestershire.

The University of Bedfordshire has made Hugh Martin its new secretary and deputy registrar. He joins from the London School of Economics, where he was chief of staff to the director and president.

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