Ivory Tower: We search for hope amid the grate and good of higher education
Rishi Sunak (supply prime minister)
I’ve pledged that everything will turn around this year: inflation, borrowing, growth, my Instagram numbers. I also want everyone to study maths until 18, or maybe even to seven o’clock and then perhaps do some extra homework after dinner as well. That way they’ll have a greater appreciation of just how bad the public finances are and how much money has been wasted in the last few years… hold on, Jeremy says that’s not such a good idea.
But don’t think I’m not able to appreciate how tough this time of year can be for many of us, especially those who must submit a self-assessment tax return. There’s all the confusing detail you have to include like whether you’ve got private health insurance and what country you live in.
I also have big plans for universities. Double maths, two maths departments for each institution, one for those that are good with numbers and one for those that run the Universities Superannuation Scheme.
George Freeman (undisputed science minister)
I’m pumped for plan B, our alternative to associate membership of Horizon Europe. Then again, I’m also pumped for Horizon Europe, if they’ll let us in. We might know by April if there is an agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Then again that might slip until the summer or realistically the autumn. So, we should be able to unveil plan B in September or October or maybe December. But also Plan A if we can. That could be in 2024, definitely before an election, or maybe not.
Anyway, it’s all going to be great. This time next year I can confidently predict that we will be a science superpower, or that Boris Johnson will be back, and it will all be chaos again. Maybe I should get a plan B.
Gillian Keegan (education secretary, for now)
This year is going to be so incredible for universities that you’ll hardly believe your eyes. I know things look challenging now, what with the financial pressures and the threat of strikes. Some people say universities are teetering on a cliff edge, but I am sure that this team of ministers at the Department for Education can pull them over that edge.
I hope to be out and about to meet students on campuses, where apparently according to the Student Loan Company’s new maintenance rates, inflation is running at only 2 per cent. I think it must be something to do with Rishi’s new investment zones plan where universities are the hubs for areas of low tax and reduced regulation and inflation runs backwards or something. I also want to see more apprentices this year—this lot in the new series with Alan Sugar are rubbish.
Vivienne Stern (supreme commander Universities UK)
In my first full year in the job, I am hoping for progress on the government’s approach to international students. Actually, I’m hoping that Suella Braverman is sacked again. When I said UUK was “delighted” she had gone, taking her policies off the table, I didn’t think she would be back a week later.
Ever since, we’ve been trying to patch things up with the government. Perhaps we could offer to send striking academics to Rwanda—well, the plane is just sitting there unused and there is nothing academics like better than a foreign trip. Maybe, we could throw in a UKRI grant to help them resettle. I’m sure their USS pensions would go further in Rwanda. Cost-of-living pay claim sorted.
Jo Grady (first secretary of the union of university soviets)
I’m looking forward to more strikes in 2023. I became general secretary during a strike, and we’ve been on strike ever since—totally love them! I’m delighted to see that so many other crucial industries are on strike now as well, from nurses to rail workers and driving test examiners to the guys who put out cones on motorways.
UCU was an early adopter of industrial action before it was fashionable and will probably be still on strike long after everyone else has gone back to work. I’d say of all the public sector strikes, the one in universities is probably the one that those who really know about industrial action would choose as their favourite.
I’m not saying it’s the strike for hipsters but it is a strike that wears skinny jeans and a beanie hat, drinks craft ale and cycles to the organic co-operative to buy its beard oil. I guess our strike is an individual and not like all those other copycat strikes that have just become too commercial. Have you heard my speeches on vinyl? They sound much better.
Ottoline Leyser (big boss UKRI)
It’s going to be a challenging year for the research councils. While we greatly welcome the government’s investment in R&D, which will see our budget total £25 billion over three years, there doesn’t seem to be enough money to pay the staff. They all want to go on strike, like everyone else, although I think some of them might struggle to compete for public sympathy when there are so many other deserving cases taking industrial action, like UK border force and tax inspectors.
However, even if I’m the only person left in the building who won’t stop us becoming a science superpower. I’ve always wanted to have a superpower since I was little, like telepathy or detachable tentacle arms. Blue skin would be really cool, although I’d settle for being able to catch a train on the West Coast mainline.
Robert Halfon (minister for universities, further education, apprentices, and all the rest)
This year we will be going all in on skills. I am a great believer in training. That’s why I’ve signed up for courses on how to drive a LGV and beginner’s Spanish.
I’m also hoping to learn some coding this year. WhatsApp is all very good but there is a risk that people will forward your messages to journalists, so I’d like the DfE to communicate via secret code that would be indecipherable to outsiders. Some people have asked me, isn’t that what the OfS is for? I think they mean encouraging cyber skills.
In 2023 I’ll be taking on the lifelong entitlement bill but now that Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson have left the government I’ve asked if we could just send them the bill instead.
Susan Lapworth (grand inquisitor, Office for Students)
I’m looking forward to being able to welcome a new colleague onto the board of the regulator as we appoint our new free speech champion. We are big believers at the OfS of people being able to present difficult views they might otherwise self-censor in the leftist monoculture of UK higher education.
That’s why our chair James Wharton gives talks to Victor Orbán supporters in Budapest. Diversity of opinion is important to us at the OfS. That’s why the secretary of state appointed his friend as chair who in turn was on a panel that appointed his friend’s wife as a director. But the free speech champion will be a different kind of appointment—I don’t think either of the candidates is married to someone who plays bridge with the chairman.
Grant Shapps (secretary of state for rocket science)
I’m not going to lie. It hasn’t been a great start to 2023, what with Britain’s first payload of satellites ditching over the Irish sea moments after take-off. However, I can confirm that unlike OneWeb they were at least the right kind of satellites. I’m just not sure about the rocket. Turns out it was a souped-up Virgin transporter leaving from Newquay, which is odd since as former transport secretary I’m pretty sure Virgin ran between London and Manchester.
However, we are not going to give up on our world-class ambitions for space. I’ll be working at pace with the commercial airlines to introduce luxury space tourism leaving from the Cornwall spaceport. The project will be called Flights of Fancy with the creation of several public-private investment groups. I very much hope these PPIGs will fly in 2023.