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What will the next Prime Minister think of higher education?

  • 28 May 2019

Theresa May has announced the date for her departure and another Tory leadership contest is upon us. While the new Prime Minister’s first focus may not be higher education, the imminent announcement of the post-18 education review means tuition fees are a topic they will likely have to take a stance on, sooner rather than later. Here, I profile the views on higher education of the eight MPs who, at the time of writing, had declared their candidacy, to give us a glimpse into what a new Prime Minister could make of higher education policy. 

Boris Johnson

  • Educated at: Oxford University (Classics)
  • Does he have a university in his constituency (Uxbridge and South Ruislip)? Yes, Brunel University London. (AMENDED) Buckinghamshire New University also has a campus in the constituency.

Boris Johnson is the bookies’ favourite to become the next leader of the Conservative Party. He also has the most connections to higher education of the current candidates. Johnson served as Shadow Higher Education Minister between December 2005 and July 2007 and his brother, Jo, held the post of Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation between 2015 and 2018. 

During his time as Shadow Higher Education Minister, Boris Johnson published a piece on University Policy for the 21stCentury  for the right-wing think tank Politeia, which concluded with three recommendations: proper funding (including pay increases for academic staff); less state interference; and higher access standards. He has also spoken out about the categorisation of certain subjects as ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’. So, whatever you may think of the idea of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, his interventions on higher education have, to date, largely been helpful to the sector.

On the issue of tuition fees, Johnson spoke out against the Labour Party policy at the 2015 election, to lower tuition fees to £6,000. 

However, when rumours of the post-18 review of funding surfaced in 2017, Johnson stated that student debt must be addressed, suggesting he may be supportive of the outcomes of the Augar report due to be published later this week. 

Dominic Raab 

  • Studied at: Cambridge University (Law)
  • Does he have a university in his constituency (Esher and Walton)? No

When interviewed recently by The Times, Raab revealed he was the first in his family to go to university. He has made very few comments on higher education, other than speaking out in favour of two-year degrees and the Teaching Excellence Framework as offering ‘important transparency for students and accountability for universities’. 

Michael Gove 

  • Studied at: Oxford (English)
  • Does he have a university in his constituency (Surrey Heath)? No

During his time as Secretary of State for Education (2010–2014), Gove’s work largely focused on schools. However, when a group of professors spoke out against his national curriculum changes, Gove stated he believed there to be ‘good academia and bad academia’. This may explain his preference for universities to fall under the same department as schools.

When challenged over his comments during the EU referendum campaign that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’, Gove partially defended his position by describing the ‘natural tendency of academics to veer towards the left [which has] now led to a monoculture in some disciplines’. 

Gove has firmly defended the current tuition fee system, saying:

“If we have to fund higher education, and if people who get university degrees go on to earn well, they should pay something back, which is what the current system does. It’s wrong if people who don’t go to university find that they have to pay more in taxation to support those who do.”

Jeremy Hunt 

  • Studied at: Oxford (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics)
  • Does he have a university in his constituency (South West Surrey)? (CORRECTION) Yes, a University of the Creative Arts campus

While Hunt’s comments on higher education have been few, the issues he has chosen to speak out on are likely to be well received by the sector. In 2017, Hunt wrote for the Times Higher Education supporting the focus by universities on student mental health to tackle increased levels of student suicide. 

Hunt, as a soft Brexiteer, has stated that Brexit must be implemented, but needs to be handled in a way which ‘strengthens our higher education institutions and strengthens our economy’. At the beginning of this year he focused on the soft power brought about by the UK having three of the word’s top ten universities and 450,000 international students.

However, Hunt was described by the head of the Royal College of Nursing as ‘hell-bent’ on reducing the numbers of nurses when he abolished nursing bursaries during his time as Secretary of State for Health, which led to a 23 per cent reduction in the number of applications to Nursing courses. This removal of nursing bursaries may suggest a commitment to the current funding model, as this change lead to spreading the regular funding model to cover nursing. His long experience as Health Secretary will likely have also given him some understanding of the importance of research.

AMENDED: Jeremy Hunt also has business links to higher education, having co-founded ‘Hotcourses’ which runs websites listing courses for students around the world. He received £14.5 million from the sale of Hotcourses in 2017, making him the richest member of the Cabinet.

Andrea Leadsom 

  • Studied at: University of Warwick (Political Science)
  • Does she have a university in her constituency (South Northamptonshire)? No

It is hard to find any comment by Andrea Leadsom on higher education. She did describe Toby Young’s comments, which lead to his resignation from the Office for Students board, as ‘totally unacceptable’. Other than this, her comments about higher education largely focus on promoting the alternative option of taking up apprenticeships. 

Matt Hancock 

  • Studied at: Oxford, (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics)
  • Does he have a university in his constituency (West Suffolk)? No

Between 2013-2014, Hancock was Minister for Skills and Enterprise, which might explain his focus on life-long learning. He is the only candidate to have studied at a further education college, which he claims gave him a greater understanding of the importance of further education. Earlier this month, Hancock was quoted by the Spectator as saying:

‘The long-term plan for the NHS has been a real success – it has allowed us to set out a strategy for the role health plays in our society. We now need to have a similar long-term plan for education, to take account the massive changes underway in the world and that we need to bring in to the way we educate people, not just up to the age of 18 and not just students, but all the way throughout their lives.’

Back in 2016, Hancock spoke at a British Council event, highlighting the importance of role of global higher education and international students around the world. His experience working as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, like Jeremy Hunt, will have strengthened his understanding of the role of research. 

Rory Stewart 

  • Studied at: Oxford (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics)
  • Does he have a university in his constituency? No

While Stewart has not publically passed comment on higher education, he does have some direct experience in the sector, having been appointed Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights at Harvard University and Director of the John F. Kennedy School of Government Carr Center for Human Rights Policy in 2008. 

Esther McVey

  • Studied at: Queen Mary University of London (Law), Liverpool John Moores (Masters in Corporate Governance)
  • Does she have a university in his constituency (Tatton)? No

Similarly to Andrea Leadsom, McVey’s comments on higher education largely relate to encouraging the alternative option of apprenticeships. She wrote an article for the Sun on the topic in August 2018.

McVey is an Honorary Fellow of Liverpool University and has commented in support of widening access to Oxbridge. 


  1. Aletta Norval says:

    Really! BJ supportive of universities? How is seeking to restrict access by purportedly defending standards helpful to all those students from low participation neighbourhoods who are the students who tend to enter HE with lower A-level and equivalent entry qualifications. How is talk of ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees – code for degrees in Humanities – supportive of HE?

  2. Lizzy Woodfield says:

    More trivia: Michael Gove was also behind the school level policy that fixated narrowly on the Russell Group e.g. adding RG and Oxbridge as a specific categories in the DfE school destination data, and he instigated the ‘Dux’ scheme with the Russell Group.

  3. Catherine says:

    The University of the Creative Arts has a campus (Farnham) in Jeremy Hunt’s constituency.

  4. Nick Braisby says:

    Buckinghamshire New University has a campus in Uxbridge, Boris Johnson’s constituency.

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