Ivory Tower: exclusive access to the diaries of the education secretary
After education questions in the Commons, I’m approached by one of our backbenchers.
“Williamson, I would like a word,” she says.
“Sorry,” I say.
“About what?” she asks.
“Sorry…it’s the word most people want to hear from me,” I say.
“Why? I thought you were a Yorkshireman,” she says.
“Sorry?” I ask.
“Don’t start all that again. I want to know what you are going to do,” she says.
I look round for one of my advisers but there is no one here, “about what?” I say.
“About free speech in universities,” she says.
“Sorry?” I ask.
“Get a grip man,” she says.
“Yes, people say that to me a lot,” I say.
“Look here, are you going to legislate?” she demands.
I look round for a Spad, still no one, “what about?” I ask.
“Free speech in universities, it’s a disgrace. All those snowflakes hating pronouns, and they’re egged on by the trade unions, bringing boat loads of international students over to claim our loans,” she says.
“Are you sure about that?” I say, trying to catch Michelle Donelan’s eye to rescue me.
“My constituents won’t stand for it. Those vice-chancellors with their yachts and their golden triangles telling ordinary people like Germaine Greer and Toby Young what they can and cannot say. I’d ban the lot of them,” she says.
“I’m not sure that’s quite right,” I say.
“It is right, I’d ban the lot of them, send them to learn a trade. We need more plumbers in this country and fewer vice-chancellors. And don’t get me started on the statues. First, it’s burning books by Churchill, the next thing they are ripping up pictures of the Queen and doing jazz hands to Rule Britannia. And then there’s the Covid. They’ve all got it, these so-called young people,” she says.
“I think they actually are young people, that’s not in dispute,” I say, wondering if I should fake a phone call from Dominic Cummings to get me out of this.
“I’ll tell you what’s not in dispute Williamson. Free speech! Why shouldn’t any Englishman be allowed to express his unalienable sovereignty by walking on to campus with a megaphone. What’s wrong with these people?” she says.
“It will all be different after we leave the European Union,” I say, hoping that will appease her.
“We’ve already left,” she says.
“I know that,” I say, “I just mean after the transition”.
“You’re not one of those transformers, are you?” she says.
“Look, thanks for your comments, much appreciated. I have to go now. Incidentally, which university is it that’s in your constituency?” I ask.
“Oh no, we don’t have anything like that. I also want to ask you what you are going to do about educational opportunities for my constituents,” she says.
I’m walking down the corridor at in the Department for Education when I see Jonathan Slater coming the other way, so I make a quick exit through the nearest door.
Unfortunately, it’s the door to the cleaner’s cupboard and there isn’t much room inside. I squeeze in but have to put one foot in a bucket and hold the mop so I can fit in.
The catch on the door isn’t working and just as Slater is walking past, the door slowly swings outwards and I’m standing in front of the permanent secretary with my foot in a bucket, holding a mop.
“Are you all right, secretary of state?” he asks.
“Yes, yes, all fine,” I say.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“Clearing,” I say, thinking on my foot.
“Cleaning?” he asks.
“No, no thinking about Clearing,” I say.
“I don’t think that means what you think it means,” he says.
“I know what Clearing is, obviously,” I say, “it’s just that sometimes when I want space to think I come here to be on my own.”
“To think about Clearing?” he asks, nonplussed.
“Yes, kind of like word association: Clearing…cleaning…Jay cloth…marigolds…flush out the system…post-qualification applications. See? It all makes sense.” I say.
“Secretary of state, would you like me to book you one of the think pods of level five? It would be much more comfortable,” he says.
“No, no, I’m fine here. I used to sell fireplaces, so I’m quite used to standing in confined spaces,” I say.
“Well, if you are sure. I thought for a minute you might be trying to avoid me,” he says.
“Not at all, why would I do that?” I say, “now if you don’t mind just closing the door, I’ll get back to my thinking.”
He pushes the door shut and I hear him walk off. I try to open the door, but it is stuck now, so I push hard on it. As the door opens, I fall out onto the floor with the bucket on my foot and the mop in my hand.
As he turns the corner, Jonathan Slater starts to whistle the theme to Some Mother’s Do Have Them.
At cabinet, Hancock is pushing to introduce new social distancing restrictions, but no one is very keen.
“What will it mean for Fresher’s Week?” I ask.
“Students will just have to be disappointed and angry this year,” says Hancock.
“Again?” I ask.
“The rule of six?” asks Boris, “isn’t that when you go and see your mistress? Just after work but before you have to be home”.
“Not quite, prime minister, it means that there can’t be gatherings of more than six people,” says Hancock.
“What about lectures?” I ask.
“Yes, I’ve had plenty of those when I got home at 8.00 but she could never prove anything,” says Boris.
“No, I mean the university experience,” I say.
“That’s easy,” says Hancock, “the rule of six does not apply when meetings of more than six people are reasonably required for educational purposes”.
“I see…but how does the virus know?” I ask, confused.
“Know what?” says Hancock, clearly irritated, but it’s hard to tell, he looks like that all the time now.
“That when more than six people are meeting, it’s for education and not for drinking or being social?” I ask.
“What on earth are you talking about?” says Hancock, looking like a Moss Bros mannequin confused by Kay Burley.
“So, if you are being educated you are immune from the virus, is that it?” I ask, beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t have started this.
“Of course not,” says Hancock.
“Then why is it OK to have more than six people in a lecture?” I say.
“Is it about risk?” he says, beginning to doubt himself.
“No the lecture could be about anything,” I say.
“Risk, yes that’s what I used to get lectured on,” says Boris, “the risks to her, of more children”
“Look, it’s very simple. Infection is rising among 17 to 21-year olds who are having too much social contact and we’ve got to clamp down on it,” says Hancock, looking as if he hasn’t slept since March.
“So, that’s why we are sending half of them all over the country to live on their own without any parental supervision, having been couped up for months on end?” I ask, wondering if this is actually one of Dom’s counter-intuitive masterplans.
“Er no…hold on a minute…” says Hancock flicking through his briefing notes.
I shuffle my papers and cough.
“That sounds nasty Gavin, you should get a test,” says Boris.
I’m giving a speech at the online Universities UK conference. To be honest, for once I’m grateful for the pandemic, so I don’t have to be in a room full of university managers or do a press huddle with journalists—every cloud etc.
I tell the Zoom audience that I’m worried about low quality. I hear sniggering. These levels of performance cannot be rewarded, I tell them. More sniggering.
What’s important is that you are qualified to do the job you are appointed to, I tell them. The sniggering grows into a guffaw.
I feel I’m losing them, so I go on to explain the new guidance for re-opening campuses, with different stages of lockdown and on-line delivery. “I am introducing four tiers for higher education,” I say.
“Tiers of a clown, mate,” someone shouts out.
I’ve got to win back the audience, so I say, “and I’m going to scrap the National Student Survey. Too many courses have unwarranted satisfaction scores.” That seems to work.
During the Q&A a vice-chancellor asks me, “so are students no longer customers?”
“We believe in the market, so of course they are” I say.
“Just not satisfied ones,” he says.
“Sorry?” I ask.
“We’ve heard you say that already,” says the vice-chancellor, “but I just want to be clear on this other thing, students are still customers, but they are not allowed to be satisfied?”
“The customer is always right,” I say. I learned that in the fireplace business.
“Except when they want a refund?” says the vice-chancellor.
“We’ve been very clear on this, if students are not satisfied with online learning they can go to the courts,” I reply.
“That’s not very consumer-friendly,” says the VC.
I pick up my laptop and start shaking it about, “Oh no, I think there must be one of those earthquakes,” I say. Then I decide to sit perfectly still without moving a muscle.
“Is he frozen?” says one of the organisers.
“It’s probably quite cold where he is,” says the VC.
“Did he just blink?” says the organiser.
I close the lid of the laptop.
I’m in my office at the DfE. I’m just looking through my memorabilia box and find some things from my time as Minister of Defence: a raincoat the spooks gave me at MI5 and a black beret that I was given on a visit to the Parachute regiment.
I put on the raincoat and beret and stand in front of the mirror. I would have made a great Cold War spy.
I get a message on the DfE WhatsApp group: “All choices are a gamble, but should we go with bet A, to keep open schools and universities, or bet B, to risk the consequences of further lockdown?”
I run out into the corridor, waving my mobile phone, shouting “Oh Bet A, Bet A…” Just then Jonathan Slater walks past. He turns away, whistling again.