Interview: Chris Skidmore, former universities minister

The former universities minister, Chris Skidmore, tells University Business about his hopes for international research, his review of the Office for Students and his memories of Boris Johnson

We’re meeting Chris Skidmore at a café in his constituency on the fringes of Bristol. We’re in quiet commuter belt country, in an area Skidmore has represented for just over a decade. He gestures to his incongruous outfit – a grey suit pushed up over steel-capped boots – and explains that he has just come from a weekly litter-picking event in a park around the corner.

After two stints as minister for universities and research, and a brief interlude as energy minister, Skidmore was replaced in government in February amidst Boris Johnson’s extensive reshuffle of personnel. His cross-departmental role, which concerned itself with science and innovation and the business of higher education, was bisected in the process.

The reshuffle occurred weeks before the country plunged into the intractable coronavirus crisis and it left two ministerial newcomers, Michelle Donelan and Amanda Solloway, to handle the impact on universities.

Skidmore says he “loved” the “action-packed role”, but admitted it was tough to keep “all the balls in the air”, especially during the Brexit negotiations when the research aspect of his role began to devour an inordinate amount of his time. Since leaving government, Skidmore has become co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for universities and has taken up an advisory role with the UPP Foundation, helping to forward the charity’s civic universities agenda.

We order coffee. An Americano arrives in a mug the size of a small soup bowl. Skidmore was raised in the Kingswood constituency he now represents in parliament. All around us, the tables are alive with the sound of lunchtime chatter. Professionals working from home now provide this out-of-town café with a thriving lunch trade.

Schooled in Bristol, Skidmore recalls his early interest in politics, joining the school’s debating society and even undertaking work experience at local MP Roger Berry’s constituency office. Nearly a decade and a half later, Berry and Skidmore were reunited on a temporary hall stage to learn that the 28-year-old Conservative outsider had overturned the incumbent’s 14% majority and snatched the party’s first win of the night.

Chris Skidmore says he foresees 'no barriers' to the UK agreeing international research deals with countries around the world after the end of the Brexit transition period. ©Barbara Evripidou/
Chris Skidmore says he foresees ‘no barriers’ to the UK agreeing international research deals with countries around the world after the end of the Brexit transition period. ©Barbara Evripidou/

The road to parliament

Unlike many of his peers on the Tory benches, Oxford University was not a launch pad for his government ambitions – in fact, it transpires, his university days dampened his enthusiasm for politics. On joining the famed Oxford Union, Skidmore recalls: “I wasn’t confident enough to debate like that, off the cuff, the bravado of it. I went off politics. Instead, I became interested in history and ended up the president of the Historical Society. I was really inspired by a couple of my tutors and nurtured a dream of becoming a don.”

On graduating in 2002, Skidmore signed up to complete a master’s at his alma mater. In the intervening summer holidays, he recalls undertaking an internship at People magazine, in London. “That was quite an interesting experience. I got to visit John Travolta’s plane, I seem to remember, every day brought another strange, celebrity-related experience.”

That August, Skidmore was sent to help cover a breaking story in a sleepy Cambridgeshire village: two 10-year-old girls had disappeared from their homes. For 13 days, police launched an extensive search for the missing friends as an inquisitive media watched on. The case became known as the Soham murders.

“I was asked to go and doorstep some of the families that had known the two girls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. I stayed in Soham for a few days. I remember putting out chairs at the press conference for the families. I got talking to a bloke at one point who had known the girls. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but it turned out to have been Ian Huntley.”

He trails off.

Back at the Oxford Historical Society, Skidmore met an academic called Robert Lacy, who subsequently invited him to become a researcher for his next project.

The Tudor project led Skidmore to pitching a work of his own to Lacy’s publishers; a biography of Edward VI, the much-overlooked ‘lost king of England’. Pursuing the deal led Skidmore to postpone his PhD indefinitely. A favourable review published in the Guardian, penned by esteemed author of historical fiction Hilary Mantel, helped his debut become a bestseller.

I got to visit John Travolta’s plane – every day brought another strange, celebrity-related experience

Chris Skidmore is now co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Universities and continues to work with the sector through his advisory role at the UPP Foundation. ©Barbara Evripidou/
Chris Skidmore is now co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Universities and continues to work with the sector through his advisory role at the UPP Foundation. ©Barbara Evripidou/

Meanwhile, David Cameron – the fresh-faced leader of the Tory party – was looking to recruit other young, modern Conservatives to relaunch the beleaguered, thrice-defeated party.

Impressed and inspired by his style, Skidmore applied for a policy job with the party and eventually found himself in the employ of shadow education secretary David Willets, whose team included a young shadow universities minister by the name of Boris. Skidmore goes on to recall Johnson’s appearance at the party conference in 2006; he had helped painstakingly to brief Johnson for his media appearances – only to watch his man roam wildly off script with stories of mums pushing pies through school railings.

This was moments after Jamie Oliver’s healthy school dinners campaign had been praised by the party’s leader as ground-breaking. Johnson’s comments made headlines.

Despite this disinclination to acquiesce to the party script, Skidmore refers to the prime minister he knows as a “remarkably fine man”. When his book on Edward VI neared publication, the 25-year-old Skidmore asked Boris, who was then editor of the Spectator, for a review in the magazine. Unfortunately for Skidmore, and much to Johnson’s embarrassment, the Spectator published an excoriating review.

Mortified on his behalf, Johnson rang Skidmore and apologised. “He then got his dad to review the book again in the Camden New Journal. I then launched this book at an event in Holland Park and I invited lots of people I knew from the party. No one turned up. But Boris did.”

Skidmore then spent time in the Conservative Research Department – “where I accidentally emailed confidential documents to a Lib Dem MP called Mike Hancock, instead of to my colleague Matt Hancock” – until a reshuffle saw shadow education secretary Willetts replaced with a young Michael Gove, who in turn invited Skidmore to return to the team as his chief-of-staff.

Skidmore begins to laugh as he recalls: “I turned up for my first day in my job with Michael and there was one Dominic Cummings saying, ‘Well, I’m also Michael’s chief-of-staff’. Michael intervened to say, ‘I see you two very much as my Ed Balls and Charlie Whelan’.” It’s unclear who is who in Gove’s Gordon Brown analogy – but considering Whelan’s reputation for ruffling feathers, we’d bet on Chris being the affable Ed. Skidmore recalls at that time working to change the party’s attitude towards non-traditional subjects; how could the party champion work and success if it reserved a “snobbish attitude” for ‘new’ subjects like media studies, he explains.

Higher education reform

That attitude of inclusivity continues to inform Skidmore’s attitudes on higher education to this day.

“I was never one to believe there are too many people going to university. Compared to other global players and European nations, that’s certainly not the case. I think we should look instead – and the work on this has begun – to consider how to achieve successful participation for all as our priority. That’s where I would agree with what [Michelle] is talking about.”

More flexible, transferable credits and a ‘hop-on, hop-off’ approach to learning, which allows a student to earn while they learn, is one route to moving the higher education experience towards one that caters for a wider demographic, Skidmore says. He is pleased his successors want to continue these reforms.
“I think Michelle is right to focus on that, it’s how you can phrase it in a positive way that demonstrates that you care and that you’ve got people’s backs.”

This year the number of English-domiciled students entering higher education has hit a record level, in no small part down to the impact of the A-level grading fiasco. He worries that the sector’s critics will use this bumper cohort as a means to attack universities. “My worry is that a few years down the line, the Daily Mail narrative will emerge.

“Critics will say these students are saddled with debt, that too many of them went that shouldn’t have, that they haven’t had a good experience in HE. I’m very concerned it will become a ‘bums on seats’ narrative. Critics might say universities took advantage of the pandemic to hoover up students. Critics are waiting in the wings to pounce, and I want to make sure universities are aware of that danger.”

Skidmore warns universities they are vulnerable to criticism from the sector's opponents this year. ©Barbara Evripidou/
Skidmore warns universities they are vulnerable to criticism from the sector’s opponents this year. ©Barbara Evripidou/

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said in July that the expansion of higher education is not what the nation needs, but Skidmore thinks the issue is more nuanced than it might appear. “I think about where politics meets policy. It’s in those crosshairs that people’s opinions change. These positions are not entrenched. And that’s why I was very keen to latch on to civic universities, because I think that has such an important part to play in levelling up.”

Skidmore goes on to mention the examples of universities supporting local communities and institutions’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. He also remarks upon a survey that suggests the public want universities to improve school and college standards. He mentions this survey less as a hint and more of a recommendation: universities should raise outcomes in schools.

“I think that can transform political views about what a university can do. Gavin Williamson is full of praise for the maths schools that have been established by Kings College and Exeter University,” he says, by way of a closing remark on the issue.

I turned up for my first day in my job with Michael and there was one Dominic Cummings saying, ‘Well, I’m also Michael’s chief-of-staff’

The need for constant reform is a theme Skidmore returns to frequently. He supported the University of Sunderland in its decision in January to drop history, politics and modern foreign language courses “because, ultimately, universities must respond to these forces”. “Not every university can offer history,” he continues. “If you can consolidate among a consortium of providers to operate a service, eventually it makes sense to create a federation of universities to offer a combined history degree. It is my passionate belief that innovation is the way forward. I passionately believe the three-year degree should come to an end.”

“What I found interesting about during my time as universities minister was how little HE appears to understand politics. I fully understand that many people in universities don’t vote Conservative, but that doesn’t interest me. What I am interested in is delivering outcomes; getting people to see how they might be able to behave differently than in the past.”

In HE policy, is it is much better to create cultural changes rather than rely on regulation to do the heavy lifting. It’s these ‘touch paper’ moments that interest me in HE policy, and it’s what I’m really keen to pursue.”

At this moment, Skidmore reels off examples, like vice-chancellor pay and non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual assault, as obvious public relation disasters. He continues in an exasperated tone: “I read these stories about universities and I think ‘What are you doing?’”

In these cases, it shouldn’t require legislation or regulation; Skidmore wants universities to come to their senses and change their ways.

Critics might say universities took advantage of the pandemic to hoover up students. Critics are waiting in the wings to pounce, and I want to make sure universities are aware of that danger

The Office for Students

During an accountability hearing of the House of Commons education select committee, universities minister Michelle Donelan was asked for her opinion on the role – and efficacy – of the Office for Students since the pandemic. After similar questions were asked by the committee in May, of Donelan and the OfS’s chief executive and chair, its members perhaps appear unconvinced of the regulator’s ability to monitor and regulate teaching quality in real time.

Skidmore believes there will be a government review of the role of the Office for Students after the pandemic is over. ©Barbara Evripidou/
Skidmore believes there will be a government review of the role of the Office for Students after the pandemic is over. ©Barbara Evripidou/

We ask Skidmore if the OfS has been critically weakened by these concerns. “The difficulty for the OfS during this pandemic has been that they’re not Public Health England. Universities have been ahead of the OfS most of the time throughout this pandemic. They’re a victim of the immediacy of the situation.”

He pauses, before continuing: “But with Dame Shirley Pearce’s review of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) on hold, there is a shadow over what the future work of the OfS will look like. After all, the TEF, along with registration, is the OfS’s strongest tool. And when it came to the briefly imposed student number cap earlier this year, it was soon revealed it was cheaper for universities to break the cap and incur the OfS’s financial penalties, rather than follow the regulator’s guidance.

“I remember thinking about the role of the OfS when I was a minister when I was implementing the Higher Education Reform Act (HERA). I thought then, either this legislation isn’t tough enough, or it’s the wrong approach. I think in certain areas tougher legislation and greater fining mechanisms are required. Ultimately, those fines should be used to protect the quality and standards of a degree. We must maintain the standard of a degree for generations, and in that space, there is clearly room for a strong arbiter.

“I think it was misnamed as the Office for Students. The OfS is probably trying to do too many things. I think we’re going have a review of all these regulators off the back of what’s happened during the pandemic. Universities are probably free to disregard OfS information if they wish to, because financially, ultimately, that’s what speaks in an HE policy. And if the money doesn’t follow the regulations, then the regulations are probably wrong.”

International research

Since leaving government, Skidmore has been a vocal proponent for the future of international research partnerships. Alongside the UK’s stated ambition of boosting R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP by the end of the parliament, which will see the UK’s public spend increase from £9bn to £22bn, Skidmore is keen to see the UK arrange new bilateral international research agreements.

Frustrated that the UK’s participation in the European Union’s Horizon programme looks unlikely while the EU maintains that Johnson’s government cannot cherry-pick agreements in the UK-EU trade negotiations, Skidmore hopes the UK uses the opportunity of Brexit to “loop in” more private investment and build more research infrastructure (he uses CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, as an example for the UK to emulate).

He says there are opportunities to create bespoke deals around segmented research areas in which the UK is world leading, like pharmaceutical innovation, or create a rival organisation to the European Research Council (ERC), open to the likes of Israel, South Africa, Canada and Switzerland.

With that, our hour is up. He must rush off to meet teachers and pupils at a local primary school now. He may no longer be the sector’s minister, but we have a feeling higher education can look forward to more from this backbencher.

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