First published in HE from Research Fortnight
Higher education is working out what it thinks about the departure of the two longest-serving Conservative education ministers of recent times. One was feared and the other was liked. Both were totemic. Gove visibly shook up schools and their curriculum and qualifications and had teacher training firmly between his teeth. Universities and vice-chancellors never quite knew how to deal with him. Many in schools celebrated when news of his departure filtered through to the staff room.
But the reshuffle brought a different feeling to the junior common room and the vice-chancellor’s dining tables. Willetts was every bit as radical and as quick as Gove, introducing the reforms that tripled tuition fees and a loans system that changed everything. Yet many in universities liked him more and more as his time in post continued. Most were disappointed when news of his resignation was announced.
Tone and style mattered. Gove was always political and confrontational. His political reputation and his headlines depended on him picking—and often winning—regular fights. His opponents were against promise, they were the soft bigots of low expectation, they were the Blob. You were either with him or against him. But ultimately he didn’t take enough people with him, as countless teachers, civil servants and even fellow cabinet ministers will testify.
Willetts had a very different style. He was consensual and accessible. He was interested in evidence and might even change his views when confronted with it. He was just as passionate about social opportunity, about teaching and research, just as bloody minded when dealing with the Treasury or the Home Office, just as convinced that it was education that would drive the UK’s success in a global race or a long-term economic plan. He was just as impatient for change. But it was the mark of a better politician that, more often than not, he took universities with him. That ultimately mattered to him as much as the policies he developed, possibly even more.
Gove, on the other hand, was the ghost at the feast when vice-chancellors met. For four years the biggest single threat mouthed in higher education has been WWMGD (what would Michael Gove do?) if he got his hands on higher education. And he admitted he wanted to do exactly that in an interview with the Financial Times that he gave in early 2014. “What I would really like to do is this job, plus universities. I think that (£) universities and science should be in this department,” he said then. Now he’s not going to. History, about which he was always so exercised, has turned out differently. In the end he went over the top once too often.
As a result, the Department for Education will probably be weaker and lower profile. It will be less ambitious in its reach. It will certainly be different. Whatever the spin about continuity and the pace of reform, every new minister wants to do things their way, and will have confidence in their ability to make the right calls. This is a summer of exam results, new free school applications, new Ofsted inspections and much more. The new education secretary, Nicky Morgan, has got enough on her plate without having to worry too much about universities.
I suspect that it means that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will now remain intact beyond 2015. There won’t be a character big enough or close enough to the prime minister, to force a major reshaping of government. A reconstituted Department for Education—never the historical normality that its supporters claim—looks highly unlikely even if the Conservatives win an outright majority in 2015. Why? The reshuffle has also ushered in a different way of working and thinking in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It has finally become the department of industrial strategy and growth.
Three ministers of state are shared—Greg Clark joining higher education and science but staying in the Cabinet Office to drive local growth through local enterprise partnerships and city deals, George Freeman running life sciences across the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Health, and Ed Vaizey championing digital industries alongside his job at the Department for Culture Media and Sport. So that’s three part-time ministers for higher education, skills and science.
All of that adds up to a more settled vision for the Department for Business, Skills and Innovation as a home for higher education. But it is also a more active role for universities, forced to network across different departments and to drive and be more accountable for economic growth in different sectors and geographical areas.
That is higher education shaped by the agendas of Andrew Witty and Michael Heseltine, who both produced reports in 2013 calling for universities to play a bigger part in economic growth. That is significant because it looks to be a vision shared by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, too. There is a price to pay for not having Gove in charge or pulling the strings, and this is it.