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Gavin takes the knee for what could be his final curtain call

Illustration: Grace Eliz for Research Professional News

Political sketch: The secretary of state for education addresses Universities UK

This year’s UUK conference is being held in a sports hall. With the chairs spaced out for not-quite social distancing, it looks like prom night at a 1950s high school.

The highlight of any UUK conference is the keynote speech from a minister. Some of us are old enough to remember when the actual universities minister used to turn up—these days it’s Gavin Williamson.

Or to put it more accurately, Gavin didn’t turn up either. After 24 hours of torrid speculation as to whether the education secretary was about to be reshuffled, sacked, or would resign, he eventually beamed in on Zoom from what appeared to be a deep space void.

Williamson delivered his speech standing in front of a blank wall, which for years to come will be a gift to photo-shoppers everywhere. He looked like a character in a sci-fi film who is being held prisoner in a parallel universe—which of course, in a sense he is, having been told by the prime minister not to leave Westminster.

‘Levelling oop agenda’

Gavin’s appearance followed a keynote speech from Steve West, the new president of Universities UK. It reminded the audience that despite rumours to the contrary the lecture is not dead but left many feeling that it ought to be.

West pleaded that universities need freedom “from political sideshows”. He had clearly picked the wrong day to “share a stage” with Gavin Williamson, who this week issued an apology after mistakenly claiming to have spoken with footballer and food poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford, when he had actually met with rugby player and technology access campaigner Maro Itoje.

Since his faux pas, the question on many people’s lips has been, is Gavin Williamson racist or just incompetent? His speech to UUK gave us a definitive answer to that one. 

Towering over his audience on a giant screen, like a sixth form drama teacher drafted in to play Big Brother in a misguided A-Level production of 1984, Williamson spoke about the government’s “levelling oop agenda” and how “a noomber of yoongsters” are benefiting from it. Williamson is a wondrous one-man example of what historians of the English language refer to as “the great vowel shift”.

Much of Gavin’s speech was given over to telling the assembled vice chancellors that there were no excuses for not delivering lectures face-to-face, and that screens could never reflect “the true quality” of the in-person experience. At some point you might have thought that a helpful spad would have deleted that bit from Williamson’s digitally delivered speech, but perhaps if you think your boss will be out the door by the end of the day you just give up trying.

‘Erm, you know…err…’

The rest of the speech bordered on incomprehension and mutual contradiction as the education secretary said that “sending kids with low educational attainment to university will not turn them into high-flying graduates” before going on to praise David Pheonix’s social mobility index, which demonstrates precisely the ways in which universities turn disadvantaged entrants with poor results on paper into [checks notes] “high-flying graduates”.

There wasn’t much logic on display in Gavin’s performance. Asked a softball question by one of the vice-chancellors about the comprehensive spending review he waffled like a man under police caution who has just sacked his lawyer and decided to represent himself.

“One thing I’m very conscious of is that, you know, as I’ve said in the speech, I really want to drive up quality, right across the university sector. I want to make sure that, erm, you know, we drive up, not just, you know, right across, you know, not just about, er, you know, dealing with the absolute lowest quality, but also, err, driving up the standards, right across the board. And I do appreciate that that needs funding.”

Just as well no one asked him if he had managed to find his A-Level results yet. The minister might have had a nervous breakdown.

‘Cancelling national heroes’

There is always something of the Uriah Heep about any Williamson performance—that’s the Dickens character, not the heavy metal band. Today, perhaps being Gavin’s last appearance before the vice-chancellors, he was keen to ingratiate himself.

You never know, when you are looking for a new job, you need to work your connections. So, Gavin declared to the vice-chancellors, “I call on you to bring the nation together”, as if they were a kind of educational Gareth Southgate.

Although Gavin was clear that he didn’t want to see universities “cancelling national heroes”, “talking about statues” or “manufacturing injustices from the past”. On this last point, Gavin has clearly never sat in a senior common room where academic staff spend most of their time doing nothing but relitigating perceived injustices from the past, like the time they were overlooked for a senior lectureship or when they were left off a round robin email.

‘Ball and chain of bureaucracy’

Having dissed concerns about the legacy of slavery, Williamson went on to speak, without a hint of irony, in the very next sentence, about “the ball and chain of bureaucracy” that was encumbering universities. He then asked a room full of highly paid administrators why universities were spending so much money on administration.

He warned that universities had to be responsible stewards of taxpayer’s money. This from a minister whose government bought billions of pounds of useless PPE from pub landlords and then sent the voters a bill for it this week in the shape of a 1.25 percentage point national insurance hike.

Gavin did say that universities had been helpful, “in what I wouldn’t call the government’s response to the pandemic, rather the nation’s response to the pandemic”. It was good at last to know who had been responsible for all those lockdowns and PPE contracts.

And then, all too briefly, Gavin’s time was up. As Steve West diplomatically put it, “we know you have other pressing concerns to deal with”.

Has Williamson taken his last bow as education secretary? It certainly felt as if this poor player has now strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.