If I’m doing his appraisal, the universities minister gets no pay rise this year | Jonathan Wolff

Sam Gyimah has done little to solve the looming Brexit threat to research funding

Being the minister responsible for higher education in the UK should be a breeze. Oxford and Cambridge brush the top of any international ranking, with another three or four of our universities on their heels. True, the US does better, but not for its size, and no other country comes close. The UK hasn’t done so well in anything since Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick and the Beatles and the Stones. Not even cycling or dressage can compete.

Sam Gyimah, appointed to the job in January 2018, faced a choice. Should he work with the sector to build on its strengths, or treat it as a delinquent infant in need of a good talking to, in the tradition of his immediate predecessor, Jo Johnson?

So how has it all worked out? In accordance with good HR practice, a probationary appraisal is due. And let’s be up to date, and do a 360 review: a review from all around. I hereby appoint myself to speak on behalf of those below, in the universities.

Gyimah’s appointment made academics sit up. True, he is yet another former president of the Oxford Union and PPE graduate. But he spent his early life between England and Ghana, and was one of the first male students at the former women’s college Somerville. There was a frisson that he might be sensitised to issues of equality and diversity, where the sector has recently had something of a kicking.

Would he stir things up? Well, up to a point. He has added his voice to those rightly complaining about the poor record in minority recruitment at Oxbridge, but his main interest in diversity concerns voices on campus. He has continued to fan the flames of freedom of speech, safe spaces and no-platforming. For example, in a major speech to the vice-chancellors on 5 September he was reported as warning of the rise of a “monoculture” on campus, with the suppression of conservative and pro-Brexit views, though the published version of the speech is more carefully expressed.

That speech does show an appreciation of the sector and its strengths, achievements, and key risks. Yet there may be a suspicion that one thing he learnt from his Oxford tutorials is that if you want people to listen, you had better temper your criticism with praise. And apart from the concern for free speech, Gyimah’s main message is that universities must deliver value for money to students, or face something unspecified but rather nasty from the regulator, the Office for Students.

Gyimah has also, importantly, urged universities to do more to address issues of mental health, though his suggestion that they act in loco parentis is a poor substitute for a searching discussion of what it is about a university environment, such as the brutal examination system, that could trigger mental health problems.

More recently, the minister rapped VC knuckles for not proactively searching for research funds to replace those threatened by Brexit. The universities’ reply is that the government had assured them that any lost EU funding would be replaced by UK funds. And VCs have been half-hearted in seeking alternative sources because they have no idea where to look for cash on the needed scale. The game has turned to not where will the money come from, but who will be to blame when it runs out?

So where are we after nine months of a new minister? My sense is that the sector’s view is little has changed. We are hunkering down under the same old complaints, with no fruitful new ideas. Research funding is under threat and the future of international student recruitment uncertain. And don’t get me started on student fees and debt. I’m afraid I am not able to recommend a performance-related pay increase in the current round.

Jonathan Wolff is professor of public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford


Jonathan Wolff

The GuardianTramp

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