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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Free speech: whose problem is it really?

At a time when the Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, is renewing his free speech crusade – popping up at The EconomistOpen Future Festival’ last weekend – there are indeed some glaring examples of problems. No-platforming, closing down of informed debate: it’s all there, just – well – not on university campuses in the United Kingdom.

Take, for example, the treatment of the ‘Best for Britain’ campaign by the Conservative Party. Best for Britain is a peaceful and law-abiding group gaining widespread support in its campaign for a people’s vote on the Brexit deal, and had been planning to hold fringe events at the Conservative conference in Birmingham later this month. But applications by three group members for passes allowing them to enter the conference venue were last week refused. They were no-platformed.

Or take a report of the response at the highest levels to one of the most careful academic studies so far on the question of the likely effect of Brexit on national food supplies. According to Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, his research group’s report did indeed attract the attention of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as one might well expect. But their meeting did not go well: “I told [Michael Gove] he was driving the country into a food security crisis. He looked incredulous.” And so, at a time when Professor Lang’s expertise is more valuable than at any other point in decades, I’m not getting the impression that he is being invited to present his analysis to other members of the government.

And then there’s the case of Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary. He’s no proponent of free speech; indeed he has restricted the media and judiciary, and manipulated the democratic system to the advantage of his party. His repression has also been felt within universities: for instance, his government is proposing to ban gender studies courses, while the Central European University has declared it may have to leave the country entirely because Orban is refusing to legalise its status. Last week two-thirds of the members of the European Parliament supported a motion to censure Orban’s government. But where did Gyimah’s party – those proud defenders of free speech – stand on this matter? That’s right, they whipped their MEPs to vote against the motion.

Maybe one could argue that there is not much wrong with any of this. The Tories surely have the right to decide who they want to hear at a conference, just as a government minister must by necessity sift competing voices on any issue. And maybe, after all, 95 per cent of the nation’s economists really are wrong, and their rational rebuttals of Patrick Minford and the Economists for Free Trade may justly be set aside. Maybe. Or maybe the ‘robust debate of contentious issues – to reach the truth’, something Gyimah sees as ‘core to university life’, is somewhat absent at present from political circles.

And maybe one could also argue – perhaps with rather more cause – that student unions have the right to decide how debates will be staged on their premises. For the evidence that critics raise on this issue tends to reduce to a handful of well-publicized cases, usually centred on students’ unions rather than universities, that regardless collapse under any degree of scrutiny. Arguably, then, much of the fabricated outrage over alleged censorship on campus boils down to resentment that someone or other was not invited to speak somewhere or other. Surely students should not be left to make these decisions themselves, especially when the Conservative Party is evidently so much more reliable in its ethical judgements.

A generous reading of Gyimah’s attack is that it’s merely a diversionary tactic. It doesn’t pay for Conservative universities ministers to look as though they are too close to universities, so it’s helpful in political terms to pick a fight or two. And a cultural matter like free speech plays well with the rightish edges of the party while making little practical difference to the way in which universities operate. It’s worth noting, in his defence, that Gyimah has not – yet – hit the revenues of universities; indeed on research spending there is a positive story to tell, while his recent endorsement of universities’ core mission was widely welcomed.

But I’m no longer prepared to take that generous reading. I’m sick of the slipshod approach to evidence in these attacks on universities, and I’m tired of being told that students and academics have insufficient respect for divergent viewpoints – that we’re not much fussed with the truth. How about, just for once, setting aside the easy, damaging rhetoric and looking at the hard, complicated facts of speech on campus? In other words, how about setting an example of intellectual honesty for other members of this historically slippery, self-absorbed government?

Moreover, whatever their motivations, Gyimah’s largely unfounded attacks on universities are working to deflect attention from far more serious problems at the heart of his own government. He is at present complicit in a project to close down debate and suppress uncomfortable evidence, and the nation stands to suffer as a result. He would therefore do well to direct his gaze to his own workplace, and turn his supposed passion for reason and transparency upon the debased way in which Brexit is being discussed. Universities are not the problem here.