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What should be the first decision of a new Universities Minister?

  • 6 June 2017
  • By Nick Hillman

Now that we are in the week of the general election, we could be just days away from a new Universities and Science Minister – the third in three years.

Either the Conservatives lose the election, in which place a new Minister is guaranteed, or they win, in which case a new Minister is still possible. (For the avoidance of doubt, were the Conservatives to continue in office and if it were down to me, I would make no change: the spots on the horizon, such as the implementation of the Higher Education and Research Act, Brexit and a new crackdown on international students, will be hard enough to negotiate successfully even for an experienced Minister that knows the sector well.)

If there is to be a new Minister, one issue will loom above all others. The Teaching Excellence Framework results are due to go to higher education institutions on Monday, 12 June and made available to the world less than a week after the polls open, on Wednesday, 14 June.

That is a massive issue to have sitting at the top of your in-tray.

Imagine the initial conversation between the new Minister and their top official.

Minister: So what is our most urgent issue?

Senior Private Secretary: The Teaching Excellence Framework.

Minister: What is that?

Senior Private Secretary: Our best guess of which universities are good at teaching.

Minister: Explain.

Senior Private Secretary: We judge each university on their data and written submission.

Minister: Has this happened before?

Senior Private Secretary: No.

Minister: Is it controversial?

Senior Private Secretary: Yes.

Minister: Why does it have to happen now?

Senior Private Secretary: Because it has taken two years to get here and we need a justification for higher fees.

Minister: If it has taken so long, what damage would be done by a little further delay?

Senior Private Secretary: Er…

Minister: Pause the process until I understand it properly, please.

Senior Private Secretary: Er…

It is plausible that non-Cabinet jobs, like the Universities and Science role, will not even be filled until the start of the week after the election. That means the results might already have been sent out to universities and the new Minister might only have a day or so to bone up on the TEF before a tough grilling on the Today programme or Newsnight.

Imagine knowing nothing about the TEF when you walk into the Education Department as a new Minister at 6.30pm on Monday afternoon, but coming up against John Humphries on it at 6.30am on Wednesday:

‘Why is your first job as the Minister for Universities to tell the rest of the world you don’t think some of our most well-respected universities are good enough?’

There are some good answers to this sort of question, but only a fool would see no risks.

AJP Taylor famously claimed the First World War started ‘mainly because of railway timetables.’ They governed the mobilisation of troops and were very inflexible. Similarly, some say next week’s TEF train is too far from the station to go back, and that it is anyway a decision for HEFCE not Ministers. Perhaps. Others will point out how HEFCE’s refusal to slow down their quality assurance review immediately after the last election so that it could be synched properly with the TEF is what led, in time, to HEFCE’s demise. (For background, see the Times Higher article ‘Has Hefce’s approach to quality review damaged its standing in government?’)

Some will say that, as HEFCE is being replaced, none of this matters very much. Again, perhaps. Others will point out that the new Office for Students is likely to employ many of the main members of staff and that, under the hood, the two organisations will have much in common. So the successor body is not necessarily immune from any overflow.

In fact, the TEF announcement is not even the first important HEFCE announcement due to be made after the election. On 9 June, while the politicians are catching up on sleep after staying up all night to see their results come in, HEFCE will announce some of their grant allocations to universities for 2017/18. If I were a senior manager in a university, I would act as if these figures were provisional: the amount spent on universities could easily be altered by an incoming Chancellor wishing to make his or her mark (especially, perhaps, one who has to find the money to make higher education free).

Assuming one party wins the election, then there are three potential outcomes: a Conservative Government with a stronger mandate; a Conservative Government with a weaker mandate; and a Labour Government. Whichever one it is, there will be political uncertainty.

So, despite supporting the basic principles of the TEF, personally I cannot help thinking the answer to the question ‘What should be the first decision of a new Universities Minister?’ is to pause the TEF until they understand it properly. Both the Minister and the TEF itself would be tarnished if it they end up at the heart of a political row in the early days of the new Parliament.

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