Sam Gyimah: “At the election, Jeremy Corbyn was the only game on campus”

Posted On: 
12th March 2018

Sam Gyimah has wasted no time in engaging with students since being appointed Universities Minister. But with Jeremy Corbyn the ‘only game on campus’ at the election, is it too little, too late for the Conservative party? He talks to Sebastian Whale

Sam Gyimah was appointed Universities minister in January
Credit: 
Paul Heartfield

Sam Gyimah was ahead of the curve. In an interview with The House in 2013, he called for Arsene Wenger to be ousted as manager of Arsenal Football Club. Nearly five years later, you’ll struggle to find a supporter singing from a different hymn sheet.

“I think the rest of the fans have caught up with me. I think he has been good for Arsenal Football Club in a number of ways. But it’s quite clear that it’s time for him to move on and I suspect the Arsenal board is belatedly coming to that view,” he says.

If his views on his beloved Arsenal have remained steadfast, all around Gyimah has changed. Then PPS to David Cameron, Gyimah now finds himself in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) as Minister for Universities, Science and Research, after stints in the MoJ and DfE. But like Arsenal, the UK could soon be heading out of Europe while an under-pressure boss stays put.

Another mainstay is Gyimah’s positive outlook and his new brief seems very much a hand in glove fit. He says he was not surprised but “delighted” at his January move. “As much as I enjoyed the prisons job, to be honest I didn’t really negotiate to keep my job like Jeremy Hunt did with his,” he says with an infectious chuckle.

Gyimah, sitting inside his ministerial office awash with blues and oranges, has wasted no time in getting stuck in. His ‘Sam on Campus’ initiative is in full flow, taking in trips to the Mile End Institute, Manchester Metropolitan and Birmingham University. He has visits planned to Bournemouth and Canterbury coming up in the first half of March.

Gyimah, the MP for East Surrey since 2010 and father of two young children, wants to engage with rather than dictate to students. “I’ve always been concerned that they’ve been marginalised and their voices aren’t being heard,” he says.

Is it a case of making up for lost time? Gyimah says that with students paying “considerable” amounts of money, it is important to listen to their apprehensions. “But there is a political dimension as well, which is that I feel that if we leave the playing field to Jeremy Corbyn in terms of engaging, interacting and listening to what their concerns are, then we only have ourselves to blame if they turn out and vote for him in droves,” he adds.

It’s true to say that Jeremy Corbyn captured the zeitgeist at the general election when it came to energising young people. “He was the only game in town,” Gyimah interjects. “He was the only game on campus with a very populist, I would say flawed, set of policies. But the point is that he was the only one there.”

Gyimah agrees that the election was a wakeup call for the Tories on young people and the party’s need to engage. “I remember when I said to one senior politician that we should mobilise and get young people to vote, he replied, ‘the young don’t vote. Why go chasing shadows?’,” he recalls.

“We should be on campus registering our supporters to vote, explaining what are the choices, why the choice matters, and getting them to vote.

“A lot of the big arguments in politics that we thought were settled are not settled. Should assets be nationalised, respect for property rights – these are all things that when you hear John McDonnell speak appear to be disputed. I think our free market capitalism has its flaws, but it is the best system we have and we now have to make the case for it anew and we’ve got to make the case for it not just at election time but all the time.

“If we are not doing all of these exercises, then you can’t expect them on polling day to put their cross against a Conservative name.”

As revealed by The House magazine, CCHQ has taken this on board with Brandon Lewis announcing that senior figures will visit universities to encourage more graduates to support the party. But it is not an especially inviting time to be a Conservative on campus. Jacob Rees-Mogg had a speech at the University of the West of England interrupted by protestors which eventually broke out into a minor scuffle. And Gyimah (who says he hasn’t been “Mogged” or received the “Mogg treatment” yet) has spoken before of a “creeping culture of censorship” in the UK’s higher educational institutions.

“What I said and what I’m particularly concerned about, is the sense that I pick up from some of the events that have happened, whether it’s Rees-Mogg or [human rights campaigner] Peter Tatchell, people like that, that somehow people with unfashionable views on campus and unpopular views have a much tougher time in terms of articulating those opinions,” he says.

“I certainly know that a lot of Conservatives feel quite uncomfortable on campus, Conservative students etcetera articulating what their views are. So, my worry here is that we get to the point where actually censorship becomes the norm and that it’s very difficult to turn the clock back.

“At the last election we had bullying, we had intimidation of candidates, we had people being shouted down. That’s the last thing I want to happen in our universities and certainly if you want to change political culture, a good place to start is in our educational institutions and university is one such place, not to mention the cultural dimension of it.”

Gyimah, who was born in the UK before moving to Ghana and returning at 16, was president of the Oxford Union while at university. He says that he considered inviting a representative from the BNP to speak at the debating society because he felt “the best way to deal with people like that was to challenge them and expose them”.

“That’s how we should see these things, not shutting your ears to views that you find uncomfortable, but challenging them and persuading other people that your views should have more weight,” he says.

Though he adds that if people are “hugely provocative and their objective is to rile and bait others” then that is “not acceptable”. “I think you should engage in this kind of debate with good grace.”

Talk of a provocateur whose objective is to “rile and bait others” rings a few bells. The Office for Students, the government-approved regulator for the higher education sector in England which comes into force next month, got off to an inauspicious start after the appointment of commentator Toby Young to its board. The Spectator writer eventually stood down following widespread backlash over past controversial comments.

“I think in hindsight everyone knows that he shouldn’t have been appointed to the board,” says Gyimah, who was not in post when the row broke out. “What I want is for the OfS to move on and to do the job that it’s been set up to do. What is disappointing is some people didn’t realise that he was one of 15 board members, and the organisation is actually being led by Nicola Dandridge who’s the chief executive, who’s got impeccable credentials for the job, and chaired by Michael Barber who’s served both Conservative and Labour administrations. That bit is unfortunate, but we’ve got to move on.”

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A review of post-18 education was announced soon after the January reshuffle, which saw Justine Greening replaced as Education Secretary by Damian Hinds and Gyimah taking over from Jo Johnson.

The very nature of the review prompted speculation that tuition fees will either be frozen at the current cap of £9,250 or indeed lowered. “Everyone focuses on fees, but there are many elements to student finance, there’s fees, the interest rate, maintenance loans. I think where the review will come out in terms of the whole system I can’t predict. But I think it’s worth looking at the system in total, rather than any one aspect of it,” Gyimah says.

Will ministers implement the panel’s recommendations? “It’s a government-led review with an independent panel that will make recommendations. So, we’ll see what the recommendations are,” he replies.

One thing that is for certain is that the Tories will not be meeting Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge of abolishing fees altogether, which Gyimah argues would lead to a cap on numbers who can attend university. Gyimah instead wants to see more choice in the system for students including options such as accelerated degrees and degree-level apprenticeships. Why hasn’t the market developed since the fees were increased in 2012?

“Some universities probably thought if they charged less they might be seen to be a less good university, so they might as well charge close to the cap. But the big point is you’ve got about half a million people who accepted a place at university last year, we can’t say that all of them have the same needs and aspirations. We need a more diverse offer, but we also need to move away from the default for most young people being it’s got to be university. We need more choice across the system as a whole,” he says.

Another vexed issue relates to overseas students’ inclusion in net migration figures. A number of high profile MPs including Treasury Select committee chair Nicky Morgan are in favour of removing the demographic from the Office for National Statistics’ data. Where does Gyimah stand?

“I think there is an internationally accepted definition of who counts as a migrant and students do count in the internationally accepted definition. That’s where we are. From my point of view the most important is that actually if you’re an international student and you get the grades and you apply to this university there isn’t a barrier to you accepting a place, obviously so long as you can pay the fees. Our success at our universities but also in science is predicated on the fact that our institutions are outward looking and are welcoming towards international students. That should continue to remain the case,” he says.

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Gyimah’s new dual brief also sees him responsible for science, innovation and research and our conversation is timely, taking place just days before British Science Week. The minister is lively when talking about Britain’s commitment to spend 2.4% of GDP by 2027 on research and development and the UK’s litany of Nobel laureates. “There is no better country in which to be a science and research minister based on our track record,” he says.

But he has his work cut out convincing a sector that was very pro-Remain – “hugely,” he points out – of the respective merits of Brexit. The sector wants to see continued free movement for the science industry after exit day and for Britain to sign up to the next EU funding initiative on research. The UK has committed to remaining in Horizon 2020 but as yet provided no clarity over the next programme, known as FP9.

“We are looking at [it], we would want to participate but subject for two tests. Obviously, that it’s based on excellence, which is what we value. But also, value for money,” he says. What does he mean by value for money? “It’s not at any price.”

He continues: “What I am doing within government is working on our strategy on that, but also with EU countries, explaining where we are but also showing that this is an area where it could be a win-win for us and the EU. As science minister, if I have my own way, given that it could be a win-win then why don’t we do a deal on science before everything else? But that’s a matter for the Prime Minister and the Commission to negotiate.

“People are also essential to this. The founder of Sun Microsystems [Bill Joy] famously said, ‘no matter who you are, the best people mostly probably work for somebody else’. This applies to companies as well as countries.

“For science to work you need collaboration and deep collaboration, and that means we need an immigration regime that enables the brightest and the best to come not just to study here but also work here as scientists.”

In the days before we meet the feared protectionist approach from a Donald Trump administration came to pass with the President pledging a trade war with America’s allies. Given that Gyimah has noted how industry relies on “deep collaboration”, is he concerned by Trump’s latest musings?

“In terms of trade wars more broadly, it’s not the right way. We tried this as a country ourselves in the 1960s and 70s and we tested this approach to the destruction of our economy. I think what we should be saying to our friends in the US is this is no way to support industries. Actually, free trade and competition is what ultimately drives progress and alleviates poverty,” he says.

Gyimah was a Remain voter, not because he’s a “big fan of Jean-Claude Juncker”, but because he felt it would be “costly and complicated extricating ourselves from the EU”, he says. “It is complicated, this process,” he adds understatedly. He praises Theresa May’s latest EU intervention and says the government must secure a “workable Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn ends up in Downing Street. And I think that would be a terrible thing for the country.”

Before we close, and after Gyimah navigates questions on his own aspirations, I turn back to the Sam on Campus initiative. A picture stuck out on Twitter of Gyimah talking to protestors who were striking over proposed changes to lecturers’ pensions. Given the hostility to other members of his party, how is Gyimah received on campus?

“What I have always said at the start of any of my events is, look, I’m here to listen. We might not agree with each other, but I’m not here to tell you why you’re wrong,” he says.

“It’s been very positive. Even when I engaged with the protestors in Manchester, it was good to actually experience it myself as the minister, rather than watching it on the news or getting it via a submission in the department. For me, that’s the most important thing, that you’ve got to get out there and engage.”

Within in his own party at least, Gyimah once more finds himself ahead of the curve.