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

Goodbye Sam

  • 1 December 2018
On Thursday evening, Sam Gyimah gave an entertaining speech at the Times Higher awards. It showed a shrewd grasp of the main issues facing the sector.

He also told us he was due to leave for Brussels at 5am the next day for meetings. Perhaps it was the prospect of this trip that settled his view that he could not remain as a Government Minister if it meant supporting Theresa May’s Brexit deal. But there was no hint in his remarks that evening that he was about to take such a momentous decision.

Not everything Sam said went down well with the sector, especially in his early days in the job. I had more support for much of his kite-flying than many others (see this blog on in loco parentis) but it was clear to all from the very start of his brief tenure that he cared deeply about students – just think of his comments about transitions and mental health, for example.

It was also clear by the end, as many in the sector saw during his one hour interview at the New Statesman / Unite Students event at the Tory Party conference, that he cared deeply about the health of institutions and the sector as a whole too. And he was always polite and keen to engage, including with students, as his Sam-on-campus tour showed.

Assuming the rumours that Sam Gyimah was fighting hard behind the scenes to deepen understanding in Whitehall of how damaging a cut to university funding would be are true, then his resignation could turn out to be deeply regretted by the sector.

While the Minister resigned in part for reasons that relate to higher education and research (UK involvement in Galileo), the issues at stake were clearly much broader too. But for those of us still working in higher education policy, we must all have our fingers crossed that the new Minister who replaces Sam rapidly considers three issues:

  1. The Augar review: If the leaks that the Augar panel want a lower fee cap are true, then this is much more likely to happen if the University Minister says they can live with it rather than opposing it behind the scenes. One challenge is that the new Minister will still be new when the Augar report lands on his or her desk, making them perhaps a less powerful voice.
  2. The Government has a target of spending 2.4 per cent of GDP on research and innovation, which is a big jump (roughly a 50% jump) on what we have been used to but which would bring us into line with other countries. Reaching the target is very far from inevitable; it will need concerted effort, a clear strategy and plenty of public funding to unlock more private funding – all of which will rely on clear leadership from the new Minister.
  3. The need for stability. When I became Director of HEPI less than five years ago, David Willetts was the Universities Minister and had been there since 2010. Since then, we have had Greg Clark, Jo Johnson and Sam Gyimah. With Sam’s replacement, it will mean five different Ministers in five years during a period of unprecedented change in the sector.

Finally, it’s worth nothing that we have been lucky with recent Ministers. They have all ended up as strong supporters of the sector they had responsibility for. Intriguingly, it is also clear that their role as Universities Minister has often affected their views on the biggest issue facing the country: membership of the EU. Three of the last four (Willetts, Johnson, Gyimah) now all seem to prefer a second referendum to other options.

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