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The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

And the new Minister for Universities and Science will be…

  • 15 July 2014

So my boss for 10 years, David Willetts, has finally left the Government. By the end of his tenure, he was the only person to have attended shadow cabinet and cabinet continuously for over 15 years – since William Hague made him shadow Secretary of State for Education in 1998. His departure was long rumoured but in the end appears to have come, at least in part, at a moment of his own choosing.

Twitter now and the history books in time will judge his policies, which included the controversial £9,000 fee cap, relative protection for science and research in austere times and the removal (or rather the announcement of the removal) of the student numbers cap. For me, he was an inspiring boss and, today, it is noticeable that even many who disagree with the Government recognise he strived to deliver a good outcome for UK science and HE. Just look at Labour peer Lord Winston’s tweet on the subject.

Politics never stands still, so this post is about his successor. We still don’t know who it will be, but it certainly won’t be Liz Truss.

Here are three vital questions for the new Universities and Science Minister.

1. Do they understand the importance of institutional autonomy? By and large, BIS officials (and HEFCE of course) do, so the system will push them to understand it quickly even if they don’t when they walk in to BIS. But all of us working on HE policy will still need to undertake close textual criticism of their early speeches to see whether that message is getting through. The level of institutional autonomy is unusual, both for public services in this country and compared to HE policy abroad, so it doesn’t always come as naturally to politicians as might be expected.

2. Do they understand the importance of individual higher education institutions for their local and regional economies? Sometimes politicians are tempted to claim only the top 30 universities should be able to recruit international students, or research should be much more concentrated or university title should be stripped from certain institutions, which suggests they don’t all get it.

3. Do they attend Cabinet, as David Willetts (and his Labour predecessors) did and can they work well with – co-operating and challenging – Vince Cable and his allies, who could see the chance to rebalance power between the two Coalition parties in BIS in the run-up to an election.

Whether the appointee has a university in their constituency will affect the answers to these questions. It’s not essential for understanding higher education. George Osborne watches Manchester University very closely even though it’s not in his constituency. David Willetts’s constituents Havant got a university (sorry). But, in general, MPs without a university in their constituency initially understand the sector less well, as they won’t have been popping in for coffee with a Vice Chancellor and are less likely to have a mass of student constituents. So they face a steeper learning curve.

And because Tory MPs are more likely to represent rural areas and Labour MPs are more likely to represent urban ones, the former are much less likely to have a university in their constituency than the latter.

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