Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Sam Gyimah MP, today visited the University of Surrey to answer questions from students and staff.
The event, which was also live streamed, was part of a national “Sam on Campus” tour of Universities. The MP for East Surrey opened by explaining that hosting a Question and Answer forum stemmed from a belief that, as a Minister, he should not just visit Vice-Chancellors, but provide greater accessibility so that students can raise their issues publicly.
In response to being questioned on the vast difference in tuition fees between international and domestic/EU students, he described international students as “vital” to the enrichment of student experience on campus and insisted that support for international students must come from Universities rather than the government.
The hotly debated subject of Vice-Chancellor (VC) pay was also addressed by the Minister, who said that salaries should be based on the value that VCs deliver in their role.
He also pointed out that VCs should not sit on the committees which decide their salary, and that Universities should remain autonomous while increasing transparency over pay, so that divergence between the pay of VCs relative to staff and academics does not become unstable.
Commenting on the consistent gap in Black and Minority Ethnicity (BME) students’ attainment compared to white students, Mr Gyimah spoke of how the Race Disparity Audit, launched in 2016 by the Prime Minister, will look at the Higher Education system. He also praised the new University regulator, Office for Students, for being in dialogue with University managements.
Among pre-submitted questions, Mr Gyimah also took questions from the floor, including questions about his previous voting record on the rights of EU immigrants to remain in the UK after Brexit, and about the future of the science and technology research industry which heavily depends on EU funding.
Analysis by Felice Southwell
In all of the Minister’s answers, it was clear to see that there was not much deviation from the official government line on Higher Education policy – not surprising given the Minister’s status in the Cabinet. While a student protest against the Conservative Government outside was audible in the event, Mr Gyimah seemed calm in answering questions from the floor.
It was perhaps a little ironic that Mr Gyimah spoke about general Government policy regarding the right of EU citizens to remain in the UK after Brexit when faced with a student bringing up his past voting record. Besides seeming like a direct contradiction to his earlier statements about safeguarding EU students’ status post-Brexit, it came across in a particularly evasive tone. Especially considering the turnover in the Cabinet at the moment, the Government seems to be holding on to ministerial collective responsibility by a tiny thread. It’s no wonder that the Minister clung to the line, his job is on it.
Also, it’s a bizarre day when students propose solutions to problems that the Minster admitted to having not considered. One student even suggested a South East weighting of the maintenance loan for students if the London weighting was not to be extended to places like Guildford. To me, that sounds like a policy that should have come from a professional policy-maker, not a student.
This is perhaps signalling a wider lack of understanding about the realities of current student experience within the Government. In Guildford, the high cost of living, obscene student rents, and overcrowding in lectures are problems which affect students every day, and affect those from minority backgrounds even more. The idea that finding solutions to this does not seem to be a priority for those in charge of making policy is distressing for those who are struggling.
Proposing that the University must take responsibility for the way it structures its ‘business’, such as setting prices for international tuition fees and Vice-Chancellor’s pay, highlights a deep flaw in the system of higher education. The repeated call for Universities to consider the quality and value of their degrees is clouded in an environment where only competitiveness is rewarded.
To me, the event seemed more like a surface-level attempt at visibility rather than transparency. Mr Gyimah attempted to reassure staff and students that the system was working and improving, while not really saying how or when, or in what way. This discourse of not answering the question has become second-nature to political audiences. It reminds me of the Government’s approach to a certain other topic we are all bombarded by but never given any information about… Let’s just hope that these question and answer forums provide the Minister with more than just publicity, but some actual policy ideas that will help those at University.
Felice Southwell is a final year Politics student. She writes here in a personal capacity and not as Editor of Incite.