Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle proved puzzling for a number of reasons – from what the point was, to why Chris Grayling was falsely announced as party chairman. However, within the Conservative party it’s the movement of figures from the Department for Education that has caused the most chatter.
Justine Greening left government after she was ousted as Education Secretary while universities minister Jo Johnson was shuffled to transport. As Isabel has written on Coffee House, the Johnson demotion is particularly strange given that he was midway through setting up the new Office for Students, including the legislation to go through Parliament. There have been some suggestions that the move was a punishment for the negative headlines generated with the appointment – and subsequent resignation – of Toby Young.
However, there is a bigger factor at play: tuition fees. Both Greening and Johnson were in favour of tuition fees and opposed No 10’s conference announcement of a lacklustre ‘freeze’ on fees. In the Telegraph, Nick Timothy – May’s former Chief of Staff, who nearly every Cabinet Minister believe is still close to the Prime Minister – sheds light on the issue. He complains that ‘Greening blocked proposals to reduce tuition fees and refused to hold a proper review of tertiary education’. He says Greening ‘had to go’ and urges May to now cut tuition fees:
‘I do, however, agree with Theresa May’s decision: Greening’s replacement by Damian Hinds was the bright point in an otherwise limited set of changes.’
Tory MPs are nervous that No 10 may be about to do something drastic on tuition fees. Since the disastrous snap election, the Conservatives have been divided over what to do about fees – a policy some have lost confidence in. The problem is that to change the policy on tuition fees drastically would be to concede the argument to Labour. And unless they abolish tuition fees – Labour’s policy – the government risks looking Labour-lite. As James writes in this week’s magazine, it would be foolish to highlight this issue with a Dutch auction on the fee level that the Tories can never win.
Instead, many MPs think the party’s time would be better spent making the progressive argument for tuition fees – along with small changes such as the return of maintenance grants. The current system is complicated and too often misrepresented when it works more like a graduate tax than a personal loan. But the figures back the Conservatives up – particularly if social mobility is their aim. The number of young people from poorer backgrounds now going to university in England is at a record level – up 43pc since 2009. Meanwhile, in Scotland where tuition fees were abolished in 2007, student numbers have been capped as a result and the poorest have suffered. It follows that May’s best move could be to work out how to pitch the current policy better – rather than concede the argument to Labour.