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Theresa May and higher education

  • 25 May 2019
Theresa May visiting Queen’s University Belfast in 2018

HEPI Director Nick Hillman looks back on what Theresa May’s premiership has meant for higher education and universities.

Back in 2015, during her final Conservative Party Conference speech as Home Secretary, Theresa May took a sharp dart from the box labelled ‘populism’ and fired it directly at universities:

I don’t care what the university lobbyists say: the rules must be enforced.

Students, yes. Over-stayers, no. And the universities must make this happen.

Yet when she stepped up to become Prime Minister a few months later, many vice-chancellors I spoke to were fairly positive about the change. Despite the constant battle between the higher education sector and the Home Office over international students during her time as Home Secretary, university leaders sensed her work ethic, her commitment to public service and her experience would make her an effective Prime Minister.

Perhaps, as leaders of large and complex institutions, the vice-chancellors felt some affinity with her. Of course, the fact that she was leaving the Home Office may have helped too, as may the fact that – like all except one vice-chancellor – she had been a Remainer in the referendum that ultimately cleared her path to Number 10.

Now, a few years on, the consensus is she has failed in her one overarching objective: a smooth and undamaging Brexit. The many Remainers and Brexiteers standing to replace her as Conservative Party Leader and Prime Minister will all claim they have a better prospectus. Part of the critical consensus is that the Prime Minister’s domestic legacy is thin and, in truth, her own list of domestic reforms in her resignation statement was less comprehensive or significant than for most retiring Prime Ministers.

On higher education, she still, even at this very late stage, seems keen to boost her legacy and to leave her mark via the rumoured publication of the long-awaited Augar report. This may end up being as important as earlier big reports, like the Browne report of 2010, although that will depend on whether Tory leadership candidates in each of the two clear camps (Brexit and Remain) use higher education as a way of differentiating themselves from one another.

But what is likely to be missed in the continuing Augar conversations is the mark that the May premiership has already had on higher education. The Higher Education and Research Bill was published before the referendum, in David Cameron’s time. But it was passed during Mrs May’s tenure when she could have stopped it. Moreover, it changed significantly during its passage in the May era.

The legislation was enacted in April 2017 and the resulting changes include the establishment of the Office for Students and UKRI. These new bodies were proposed before Theresa May entered Number 10 but their establishment afterwards was not inevitable. She could have stopped the legislation or radically amended its contents by reorientating it towards things she has long supported (like ‘deep discounts in tuition fees’ for STEM courses).

Besides, Theresa May’s impact on higher education goes way beyond legislation. Her decision in her early days to put policy responsibility for the teaching functions of higher education institutions back in the Education Department ended higher education’s journey around Whitehall, from the Department for Education and Skills to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and then to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and then, under May, back to the Department for Education in Sanctuary Street. 

Another part of her higher education legacy is Sam Gyimah’s and then Chris Skidmore’s appointments as Universities Minister. Her decision to keep Jo Johnson in post for the first period of her premiership, despite the Whitehall rearrangements mentioned above, was also important. In my view, we’ve been well served by all three. Both Jo Johnson and Sam Gyimah have continued to be firm and effective advocates for the sector after resigning as Ministers from May’s Government – as shown by the former’s amendment to the current Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill (£) and the latter’s recent article in the Financial Times (£). 

But to return to where I started, in the end Theresa May will rightly or wrongly always be best remembered in the higher education sector for her attitude towards international students. Universities could never understand the relentless negativity.

It seemed, to me, to be caused by something which affected her whole approach: the only Department in which she had worked before becoming Prime Minister was the Home Office and she was never able to detach herself entirely from its outlook. Perhaps if her constituency of Maidenhead had included a major higher education provider, she would have had a deeper understanding and more positive perception of the benefits universities can bring but that was not to be.

1 comment

  1. John O'Leary says:

    It’s true that she was only ever a minister in the Home Office but she was the Shadow Education Secretary at a time when universities were part of that brief. You’d have thought she might have picked up a bit from that, but it wasn’t obvious.

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