Sam Gyimah wrote yesterday that he is to tour universities to listen and engage with students. “Politics should be a dialogue, not a monologue, so I’m looking forward to discussing tuition fees, safe-spaces, access to higher education and our potential post-Brexit, among many other topics, in a robust and honest fashion,” he said, adding that he’d like to be thought of as minister for students as much as minister for universities. The review of tuition fees that he has announced today may help to get him a better hearing.
Gyimah was right to say that “we must continue to call out Jeremy Corbyn and prevent him monopolising the student space”, and we wish him well with this new work. It echoes that of a former Conservative Education Secretary whose hundredth birthday would have fallen this week. During the 1970s, Keith Joseph went round the universities, during the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, to put the case for conservatism to students. He was heckled, booed, jostled and occasionally pelted with eggs, but the fastidious and courtly Joseph kept going.
Doing so was part of his effort to change the intellectual weather, and popularise the case for smaller states and free markets. A pamphlet he wrote during that period was called “Monetarism is not enough”, and Oliver Letwin, who worked for him, has suggested that Joseph believed the same of rolling back the state. “In reality, Keith’s arguments for the ‘common ground’ and the ‘social market’ were aimed at establishing the contention that free markets, properly harnassed, are the most powerful engine yet invented by humanity for elevating the condition of the poor and disadvantaged,” he writes in his recent book, Hearts and Minds.
In retrospect, those university visits can be seen as part of the turning of an intellectual tide – of the eventual creation of Thatcherism. Gyimah’s tour sounds likely to be focused on higher education itself, or on other matters that students want to raise themselves. He is certainly shrewd to present it in that user-friendly way, and we wish him well in undertaking it. But preventing Corbyn from monopolising space isn’t quite the same thing as making maximum use of it. It sounds as though Gyimah’s tour should be complimented by a project that ranges wider.
We have already floated the creation of a modernised Swinton College. And there are senior Tories who could do today an updated verison of what Joseph did 40 years ago. Letwin himself is one, as is David Willetts. So is Michael Gove – though he is a Minister with a job to do: Joseph was in opposition when he undertook his visits. So is Jesse Norman, another Minister. So is Nick Boles. There are plenty of others. If we say that Gyimah is not enough, we don’t want to be misunderstood.