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Ivory Tower: Exclusive access to the first draft of Gavin Williamson’s speech to the Hepi annual conference

Disaster management in higher education

Speech for Higher Education Policy Institute annual conference, 24 June 2021

[Draft 1, draft for checking, 11 June 2021]

Hello everyone. It is great to finally be back speaking to you in person now that we have reached the end of our glorious roadmap to unlocking and the prime minister has confirmed the lifting of all restrictions on social distancing. It is wonderful to be back in the room with the Hepi annual conference.

I know you have come to hear me speak today, and that the programme will be full of rich insights, and you’ll also hear from Michelle Donelan, the universities minister. You could not have picked a better topic than learning from the Covid crisis, and in particular looking back on the disaster management at the Department for Education.

When I came to the DfE, I really wanted to see how education was run so badly and now, thanks to the pandemic, I can safely say that I have done that. It has been a privilege to pass responsibility to the permanent secretary when things go well and when things go wrong.

Today, I want to turn to one of the jewels in the crown of this sceptred isle—our universities. They are not like the real crown jewels. Our universities have not been given to us as a generous gift from our former colonial subjects.

They have not come from a diamond mind in Rhodesia. Although, actually, the wealth of some of them did, so maybe they are exactly like the crown jewels. And all the better for it.

On this important topic, let me say that this government is one hundred and ten per cent committed to controversial statues. Look at Jacob Rees-Mogg. He said it best when he thanked the “woke brigade” for reminding him of Britain’s great heroes.

I want our universities to celebrate those names that have made Britain great. That’s why today, I am announcing the first new wave of universities in Britain since [add ancient date here—GW. Gavin, which do you mean? Leeds Arts, 2017? Ravensbourne, 2018? Peterborough, 2021? SpAd1].

From next year, we’ll be licensing 40 new skills universities, the Technology University New Colleges for Knowledge. Our first THUNCKs will help level up this great nation.

The early THUNCKs will take their names from great British heroes, like Churchill, Brunel, Shakespeare, and Andrew Neil. Naming rights for later THUNCKs will be subject to an auction process and we hope many of our great companies, like Virgin and Sports Direct, will get involved.

As the prime minister has shown with his many successful biographies, you cannot rewrite history, even if you try.

This government has no truck with cancel culture. Just look at my colleagues Priti Patel and Robert Jenrick. The prime minister refused to bow to a purist approach to the ministerial code and correctly refused to cancel those ministers.

Wherever the government has found wokish opposition to our commitment not to cancel ministers, those senior civil servants and ethics advisers have been encouraged to pursue other opportunities. We will not hesitate to cancel the cancellers.

Universities should understand that they have a profound responsibility to uphold free speech. Higher education should be about experiencing a wide range of opinions and ideas—just like having subscriptions to both the Spectator and GB News.

Soon, the Office for Students will appoint a Free Speech champion who will have the powers to fine those universities that do not do what the government wants and uphold the values of free speech. I said before that I would not hesitate to act if universities did not do what I asked.

That is why I appointed a great candidate to the chair of the Office for Students who not only thinks the same as the government but also votes for it in the House of Lords. That’s the sort of cutting through of red tape that this government is committed to.

I am now looking at universities to respond imaginatively to other issues I have raised with them. First of all, I would like to see action on minimum entry requirements for higher education.

It is an absolute scandal that someone can gain access to a university who has not passed their GCSE exams. That’s why this year’s teacher-assessed grades will ensure that no one will fail their GCSEs.

Let me send a consistent message. While we have said throughout the pandemic that everyone has been doing a world-class job, and that students should not expect a refund on their fees, actually what you have been doing is not good enough. There are too many low-quality courses.

I have looked at the data and I was shocked to see that at one university, only 39 per cent of those who enrol in psychology go on to graduate employment or further study. This is not good enough. 39 per cent? How many psychologists does this country need?

We need to see more students enrol on cyber courses. Obviously, they should not register on the courses where only 35 per cent of those who study computing go on to graduate employment.

I want to see all graduates achieve above-average graduate earnings. That’s what you can expect with good maths skills.

Let me just say it is an absolute disgrace that we subsidise media studies at a higher rate than maths. As a government we prize numeracy and arithmetic skills, that’s why we think a subject that requires cameras, editing suites and digital technology should be funded at a lower rate than classroom teaching for maths.

That’s why we are bringing forward our THUNCKs licencing programme, and when Shakespeare THUNCK opens we will expect to see a move away from dead-end arts and humanities programmes to the subjects of tomorrow, like spreadsheets and computer chess [insert others here—GW].

Some people tell me they are worried this government wants to sow division between universities and further education colleges. They are very wrong. When this government puts up a border—like the so-called border in the Irish Sea—it’s not really a border, and if you just believe hard enough, it doesn’t really exist.

That is the sort of disaster management and magic thinking I have experienced in this government during the Covid crisis, and which I want to see more of at the department for education—and flags. That’s why I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to some of my cabinet colleagues who have helped see us through the pandemic.

We can all learn a lot from Matt Hancock’s commitment to jabbing, and those who have supported him closely during this time. He is the sort of minister who will strain every sinew for you and who, like the prime minister, is committed to more technology lessons.

Let me conclude by saying that some vice-chancellors are worried the reputation of British universities abroad is being trashed. I can assure them that as part of Global Britain this government will always do that work for them. Universities should not worry about the damage done to their reputation abroad—that’s the government’s job.

Thank you all for listening, and remember, I know where you live.

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