With separate ministers for universities and science, will Number 10 step in more often?
So we have a new universities minister in Michelle Donelan and a new science minister in Amanda Solloway.
To many of us in higher education, even to close watchers of politics, these incomers are blank slates. That is not a slur. The fact that we know so little of them may say more about us than it does about them. The least shouty politicians are sometimes the ones who get the most done.
The roles they are taking on were sewn together for many years, although the stitching had become increasingly frayed in the face of wider political changes. I still think of myself as having worked for a fairly recent minister for universities and science, but there have now been seven changes since my old boss David Willetts left the role in 2014. In the intervening period, we have had Clark, Johnson, Gyimah, Skidmore, Johnson (again), Skidmore (again) and now Donelan and Solloway.
Since Donelan and Solloway were first elected to parliament in 2015, higher education has bounced around Whitehall. Just four years ago, in David Cameron’s time, it was the responsibility of one person in the old Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Then, under Theresa May, it remained under one minister but was put within both the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education.
This was made to work but it was also a little messy because joint ministers face challenges that ministers with just one sponsoring department do not. They can feel like they have one foot on shore and one on an untethered boat, with a perpetual risk of falling in the water. Moreover, the structure in place for the past few years raises an obvious question: Why put higher education in two departments if it still only has one minister?
Under Boris Johnson, we are finally getting two people in charge. This was always likely to happen eventually, but it might not be an improvement. A single minister can at least bridge gaps between departments in a way two ministers cannot. Now, the strengthened Number 10 might step in more often.
The problems are not just theoretical. For example, when the Augar report recommended lower tuition fees in May 2019, Chris Skidmore could consider the impact across both teaching and research as the minister in charge of all higher education policy. Now, Donelan as the Department for Education minister has an interest in fee levels but not in research funding. Similarly, Solloway will have a majority interest in postgraduate research but less sway over policy on taught postgraduate courses.
It is notable that neither Donelan, who represents Chippenham, nor Solloway, who represents Derby North, has a university in her constituency—although the University of Derby is close to Solloway’s seat.
The absence of a university is not unusual among Tory MPs, but it can hamper understanding of higher education. Those with universities in their constituencies, such as Nicky Morgan when she was the MP for Loughborough, tend to have a better feel for their needs. If only Cameron and May had had universities in their constituencies, they might have followed less cackhanded student migration policies.
Then again, it is by no means essential for an MP to have a university in their seat for them to be sympathetic to higher education, as Willetts, Johnson and Skidmore showed.
Nor is it necessary to be a graduate to do right by universities—after all, Alan Johnson never went to university. I have struggled to find out whether Solloway attended university or not but, assuming the absence of information means she did not, that merely puts her among the majority of women of her age.
Donelan is a graduate—and unusually for a universities minister, not an Oxbridge one. She studied history and politics at York, which has educated a number of MPs on both sides of the political spectrum. Education secretary Gavin Williamson is also not from Oxbridge, having attended the University of Bradford (once thought to be Margaret Thatcher’s least favourite university due to its expertise in peace studies), while Solloway’s boss Alok Sharma, the incoming secretary of state at BEIS, went to the University of Salford.
This shift away from Oxbridge is symbolic but it actually matters much less than people tend to think because the civil servants at BEIS and the Department for Education generally understand higher education’s diversity. It is civil servants elsewhere in Whitehall, including the Home Office, who struggle with the concept.
Both Donelan and Solloway differ from their recent predecessors in being women. It is sad that this is notable, but it is. There have been a relatively high number of female politicians representing education at the cabinet table over the years, including Shirley Williams, Margaret Thatcher and Ruth Kelly. But female politicians have been conspicuous by their absence in representing universities at the lower ministerial ranks since Margaret Hodge (now chair of council at Royal Holloway) in the Blair years.
This is worth remarking on in part because UK universities have long had more female than male students. The gender of the incoming ministers could feasibly mean a greater focus on smashing the glass ceiling within academia.
A word of advice
Given the apparent past disconnect between our two new ministers and higher education, my entirely unsolicited advice to them would be twofold.
First, invest time in building strong relationships with sector bodies so that you can bounce ideas off them, so that they can give you the evidence you need for future battles with your colleagues and so that you can have constructive conversations with higher education when you need to challenge it. The next few years are going to be tricky because of the huge range of uncertainties facing universities. To make things as smooth as possible, government and sector bodies must feel able to trust one another.
My second tip would be: get out and about. Don’t wait for people to come to you in Whitehall. Go and see students and staff in their natural habitats. The risk of this is, admittedly, that you may fall in love with higher education in the same way that many of your predecessors have, at which point the Whitehall machine may accuse you of ‘going native’ and look to move you on. But the alternative is much worse: failing to understand what makes universities tick.
Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.