by Robyn Banks

Here’s a sentence I’ve wanted to write for some time: Jo Johnson is no longer the Universities minister. Last week Theresa May ‘promoted’ him to the transport office and made him the new minister for London. His removal came just days after Toby Young was forced to resign from the Office for Students (OfS) board, in part due to his link to a eugenics conference held at UCL.

Johnson’s time as the universities minister won’t be remembered fondly by many. Introducing such reforms as the infamous Teaching Excellence Framework and the now beleaguered OfS, and making continued ill-informed attacks on universities for ‘restricting freedom of speech’, Johnson has made very few friends in the higher education sector and even fewer amongst the students who study within it.

Johnson’s replacement, Sam Gyimah, inherits all this baggage that Johnson left behind, but nonetheless has the chance to shape a new future for higher education and perhaps fix some of the mistakes Johnson made. However, looking back at Gyimah’s track record doesn’t provide much hope that he’ll make any kind of progressive offer for HE.

Gyimah’s level of commitment to filibustering is great enough that he is willing to both reinforce homophobic stereotypes and ignore basic facts to delay a debate

Gyimah’s voting record on HE issues makes unimpressive reading. He voted for increases in tuition fees, and against the restoration of the Education Maintenance Allowance, nurses’ bursaries and maintenance grants. Of course, in each of these cases he was following the party line, so they don’t necessarily tell us much about his personal views. More concerning than Gyimah’s voting record is the way that he has acted during debates in parliament. He has gained a reputation for filibustering debates on laws that he (or his party) believes shouldn’t be given a chance to get a second reading. He first took part in filibustering the proposed law to introduce compulsory first aid training for state secondary schools, despite being repeatedly asked by the deputy speaker to sit down and allow the debate to continue. He followed this up with an even more brazen and insulting filibuster on the ‘Turing Bill’ in 2016. During the speech Gyimah made repeated claims that ‘the bill did not give strong enough protections against men being accidentally pardoned for sex with a minor or non-consensual sex’. This argument not only depended upon the dated and bigoted assumption of a link between paedophilia and homosexuality, but was clearly falsified by the very express intention of the bill to “provide a blanket pardon for any gay man convicted of a crime which is no longer a crime”.

If Gyimah’s level of commitment to filibustering is great enough that he is willing to both reinforce homophobic stereotypes and ignore basic facts to delay a debate, it’s hard to hold much hope for change within the universities office under his tenure. At best it demonstrates a commitment from him to doing whatever is possible to ensure that the status quo is maintained; at worst that we should expect any negotiations with sector activists like NUS or UCU to be met with time-draining, exhausting meetings that are intended to break down any dialogue.

Johnson’s departure is something to celebrate. He was a serious threat to higher education becoming open and accessible to everyone. However, in his replacement we have someone who not only reinforces dead stereotypes for marginalised communities, but also kills debate he disagrees with by stonewalling it until the opposition is left with either no time or energy to continue. This isn’t the kind of person who a government, really concerned about the future of students and the higher educational system would bring in. Though he has done little in the first week of his new role, Sam Gyimah’s appointment reveals much.

Featured image credit: Policy Exchange

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