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Why Prime Minister Johnson should keep Skidmore in HE – or what his successor should learn from his tenure

  • 23 July 2019

We now have a new Prime Minister. I have written before about what Boris Johnson thinks of higher education. But his first impact on higher education will be the formation of his government.

It is likely Boris Johnson will be looking for a shake up, meaning that the position of Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation could be up for grabs again. Skidmore could be set for promotion to cabinet level, given he has recently been covering the role of Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth. If he were to move on, that would mean we the higher education sector would be on our sixth minister in five years. 

As well as believing it would be beneficial to the sector to have some ministerial stability, I think there are five key reasons we would miss Chris Skidmore if he moves on from the HE Minister position this week: 

1) His focus on improving the higher education experience for minority groups

In general, students have good experience of higher education. Our Student Academic Experience Survey shows again this year that more students believe they’re getting good or very good value for money and two thirds of students when asked if they would repeat their HE experience, would make no changes. But we know this experience is not universal – our results consistently show students from minority groups have a less positive experience. This is something Skidmore has been alert to since his first speech as minister in January and he has since focused on, including pushing for more to be done to support care leavers into and through HE and setting up the Disabled Student’s Commission.  

2) His being both of the sector and for the sector

Skidmore entered his role with more experience of higher education than others have had, given his time as an academic at University of Bristol. This seems to have had some influence over the way he has taken on his role, as he has talked far more positively about the transformational experience higher education can have than his recent predecessors.  He has also strongly spoken out again the rhetoric that ‘too many people are going to university’. 

Early on, Skidmore set out his aim to visit every university in the UK, a promise he is making significant progress on even in the short time he has been Minister. As someone who also regularly gets on to university campuses, I think it’s impossible to do so without being persuaded of the power of higher education and having positive tales to tell about the great work that is going on in campuses across the UK. 

3) His approach to Augar

We don’t know what will happen to the Augar review under Johnson. There is a chance it will not see the light of day. However, while that still remains uncertain, Skidmore has taken an approach supportive of universities, advocating for the importance of securing top ups if fees were to be cut and arguing strongly against the rumoured policy of removing student loans for those with less than 3 Ds at A level – describing it as ‘a hill I was willing to die on’. If any part of Augar is to be picked up again under the new administration, the HE sector could feel protected by Skidmore’s approach to date. 

4) His commitment to research funding

Skidmore has taken a keen interest in the research part of his brief. In his short time as Minister, he has focused on the need for increasing research spending, including giving a series of speeches titled the ‘Road to 2.4%’, about how we can reach our targets for R&D. This is a welcome and necessary commitment, although we have written about the need to go further and shift our focus to the 3% target.   

5) His action on responsible use of data

The final area that has stood out to me in Skidmore’s time as Minister is his commitment to the responsible use of data. As someone who is an advocate for more data being a good thing, but also keen to see responsible use and understanding the limitations of datasets, I have been pleased by the attitude the Minister has taken, particularly in the setting up of the data advisory board. Access to new data like LEO make those in government’s eyes light up with all the uses it can be put to, but Skidmore has rightly been consistently arguing for it to be contextualised, saying it would be ‘Orwellian’ to base policy purely on graduate salaries.

One important higher education topic Skidmore has not made progress on, is helping to introduce a better regime for international students. However, given how closely linked existing policies on international students were to May, a new prime minister brings hope of more positive action being taken support the value of international students to the UK higher education system.

After May announced her imminent departure last month, Skidmore described himself as in a ‘one-man race for his job’ at the HEPI Annual Conference. Personally, I think higher education would be in a better place if he were to win that race. 

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