Sam Gyimah: broken by Brexit*

With the resignation in the final hours of November of Sam Gyimah as Minister for Universities and Science, higher education loses not just another minister, but its most endearing animoji. This fresh-faced two-dimensional cartoon figure took an astonished sector by storm in 2018, tracing the minister’s journeys through higher education, bristling with conservative fervour yet rapidly coming to appreciate the quality of British universities. The departures of both the man and his animoji leave many questions behind.

In a Brexit context, Gyimah’s resignation feels significant because of his record of careerism and party loyalty. While Jo Johnson, another former Higher Education Minister, produced at the moment of his resignation as Minister for Transport last month a perfectly formed argument for remaining in the European Union, Gyimah’s farewell facebook post was rather a cry of confusion and anguish. Though remainers will doubtless claim him as one of their own, he is in truth not sure who to blame, nor what the country should do next. This is a man who drank deeply from the Brexiters’ Kool-Aid after backing ‘remain’ in the 2016 referendum, and is only gradually coming back to his senses.

His willingness to share his learning processes also made him an intriguing minister. David Willetts, one of Gyimah’s most influential predecessors in the role, famously began his book, A University Education, with the statement: ‘I love universities.’ Gyimah came around to the same position, as he declared to the Universities UK conference in September; however, his love was never unconditional. He inherited the right-wing free-speech crusade from his predecessor, and ploughed ahead on this front with little regard for evidence. He also drove forward Johnson’s agenda of ‘value for money’, founded on ever-more detailed graduate salaries data. And he famously declared himself ‘minister for students’, almost as though suggesting that universities couldn’t be trusted with such responsibility themselves.

As a result his public declarations about universities were wildly erratic, and also notably partisan. His interest in student welfare, for instance, was well-meaning and timely, yet his ‘Sam on Campus’ events combined a genuine effort to listen with an attempt to rally Conservative students. And even in his last week he maintained his pattern of provoking in one speech and placating in another: lashing out at supposed ‘poor-value’ courses, acknowledging that ‘earnings are not everything’, celebrating agricultural and space technology, and then promising at the Times Higher Education awards that ‘as long as I am minister I will fight for universities’ interests’. Perhaps he never really wanted academics to trust such promises, since getting too close to the sector had proved fatal for his predecessors. To be fair to his critics, though, he gave plenty of cause for mistrust.

Yet maybe the promise of support was also increasingly difficult to fulfil. As much as he and his animoji strode purposefully onward, Gyimah’s ministry was surely being torn apart on at least two fronts. Firstly, the discourse of value for money was driving hard towards simplistic solutions damaging to the sector he had come to love. University closures, for instance, are easy enough to embrace in theory, but trickier in practice. Then there is the spectre of the Augar review, with its widely-leaked thinking around fee-reductions (possibly with a promise to make up the difference from government spending – like, honest). Gyimah inherited this along with much else; indeed it is widely believed that the opposition to it of Johnson and then Education Minister Justine Greening played a role in their respective dismissals. It was also stamped from the beginning as Theresa May’s project, that would report jointly to the Secretary of State for Education, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister. But his influence could still have been critical when that report hit those desks, and rumours suggest that he was wary of the damage it may cause.

Secondly, he was torn on the question of research. Indeed it is hardly surprising that Galileo, the biggest of big science projects, appears to have been the satellite that broke this minister’s will. His arguments that the UK could drive towards ambitious increases in research and innovation funding – aiming at a target of 2.4% of GDP, from a starting position of roughly half of that – were feeling increasingly stretched against the fiscal realities of Brexit. He must have understood that himself, for all his evidently naïve confidence. And he must have felt the strain of that tension, since he embraced the world of science and technology with a passion. Moreover, he appeared to understand the importance of research collaboration. His suggestions that academics would be able to replace the effect of EU funding if we just tried a bit harder were unquestionably ham-fisted, playing to the Brexiter gallery, but there was more to him than that. Importantly, in his final days he was arguing the case for international researcher mobility, pleading for universities to have special status in any new immigration regime and stating that UK access to EU funding after Brexit ‘won’t work’ without mobility. Not every politician gets this point.

One post-Gyimah scenario might go along the lines: May loses her vote, resigns, is replaced by someone less antipathetic towards universities, and Augar gets politely buried. After all, nobody apart from the Prime Minister really wanted the review in the first place. But that is surely utopian thinking; instead the sector will have a May loyalist, signed up to the delivery of Brexit, sceptical of a sector in which leading figures have been finding an oppositional voice in recent days, and therefore happy enough to inflict some pain in the interests of career and the shadowy outlines of a plausible ideology. Gyimah’s journey perhaps demonstrates that it is difficult to spend any time in British higher education without coming to appreciate it – even to love it – but his successor could have precious little of that commodity on his or her hands before making pivotal decisions.

From a distance, one might well reflect that this is no way to manage a university system. But then it’s no way to run a country either, yet we seem to be doing it.

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