An Audience with Sam Gyimah MP │ Angus Gillan
- Born 1976, age 41.
- From Buckinghamshire, moved to Ghana aged 6 with his mother and attended school there until he was 16, when he moved back to the U.K. for GCSEs and A-Levels.
- Attended Somerville College, Oxford and read Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.
- Elected President of the Oxford Union.
- Former investment banker at Goldman Sachs.
- MP for East Surrey Since 2010.
- Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister and a government whip.
- Parliamentary Under-Secretary of state for Childcare and Education.
- Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State focused on the Constitution.
- Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation.
Mr Gyimah visited the University of Birmingham on the 9th February as part of his tour of the U.K. He is currently visiting a range of universities, a mix of Russel Group and non-Russel Group; to see more check out #SamOnCampus on Twitter. Sam was interviewed, by Cathy Gilbert, Director of External Relations at UoB.
To clarify: when ‘students’ are discussed, this will refer in general to both undergraduates and postgraduate students.
Sam started his discussion by outlining a worry he has, which many of us will also share, about the growing unhealthy divide in politics, especially between younger and older. This is a major influence on why Sam is undertaking his tour, the aim of which is to speak and listen to younger demographics and as such he is meeting with students and youth groups to find out what students “actually want”. Now, it is true that many young people will not always agree with a Conservative Minister, however what is most impressive and inspiring is Sam’s willingness and clear energy to get out and meet people.
This is a breath of fresh air, a new young minister with a passion for supporting students, with a narrative that great universities are central to the future of the nation. This inspires confidence in myself for the future of the party.
One of the key topics discussed was, naturally, tuition fees. In 2010 Sam stated in Parliament that he found Blair’s target of sending 50% of young people to university inspiring. This is evidently a concept he still adheres too, celebrating that fact we have 48% of young people entering Higher Education. Sam highlighted that under a Conservative government more people than ever before, and from more diverse backgrounds, are attending university. This is a trend he wishes to support, widening participation in higher education. To support such an initiative, Sam defended high tuition fees, his case being:
- If fees are removed but we want more people to attend university, than taxes would have to be raised to fund university services. This is inherently unfair on non-graduates, who would be funding students. These students as graduates on average will earn £100,000 more over a lifetime; some studies estimate graduates may earn up to £500,000 more! Higher education is not categorised as a right and so by choosing to advance one’s prospects with a degree, there should be costs to cover expenses.
- Alternatively, without a source of funding from taxes or from fees to pay for maintenance, wages, research, health services etc., then we would end up turning the clock back decades to where only the privileged few could receive higher education as universities would be unable to take students in greater numbers.
Following this Sam disagreed with an audience member who questioned interest rates, clarifying that the more you earn the more you pay back, which limits the weight of student debt.
One of the most poignant moments was when the President of UoB Guild of Students, Ellie Keiller, raised the issue of living costs, recognising that tuition fees are not always the issue, it is in fact the cost of living, food and rent, that causes financial hardship for many. To this Sam admitted that currently he has no answer to the issue, but he is extremely alive to the problem. The cost of living was a topic that has been raised with him regularly since taking office. An anecdote from a meeting with another student stated bluntly that riots would be more likely following rent increases than tuition fee increases.
Questions from the floor
Question: Should universities be about self-development or world development? Do we focus too much on furthering our own capabilities and can universities do more to support global development?
Answer: Universities are a world class sector in Britain and provide fantastic opportunities post Brexit. While the nature of universities is to further knowledge this inherently aids the wider world through various research projects and social and scientific breakthroughs. We also educate many world leaders at U.K. institutions. Sam highlighted how many of the EU science advisors he was meeting had studied for some time in Britain.
To this I would add UoB as a prime example, regarding politics the university has had alumni involved across Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Oceania, and the Caribbean.
This linked to Sam’s narrative that while academics are exemplary in the U.K. we must also recognise the fantastic opportunities for wider learning that allow one to develop. Here Sam referenced how important society activities and friendships were; university is a place to learn but also to meet fantastic people. This was followed with a fun anecdote of how he met his wife while at university but unfortunately did not have the courage to ask her out for about a decade. This is characteristic of Sam’s ability to be serious and informative, while also adding in a sense of joviality where appropriate.
Q: Following the success of SpaceX, landing reusable rockets back on Earth, and advancing the bounds of space exploration, what action will be taken to ensure Britain leads the aerospace industry?
A: While there wasn’t time to go into specifics Sam highlighted the brilliance of a private sector company in pushing the limits of possibility and noted that not only is there greater funding for the sciences in general, but the aerospace industry will be receiving more money than ever before to support the great work British businesses already do.
Q: Will electoral reform be altered? (The audience member believed the former electoral registration system was better for young people.)
A: Sam opposed this notion, making it clear he was much in favour of the new reforms. The previous system was characterised as anachronistic, with the head of the household registering all people. He firmly believes that if you want to take an active part in society and politics than you must accept the responsibility of registering yourself. In our modern world we spend hours per week on mobile devices, and now it has never been easier to register – it takes four minutes via mobile! He suggested more work might be needed to be done by the government and institutions like Student Unions to spread awareness. (Here I will note UoB has had some very successful electoral register campaigns).
Q: (Asked by the Education officer at UoB Guild of Students.) Is the issue of free speech on campus being used as a smoke screen for other issues?
A: A resounding no was Sam’s response. While there are many issues to address he firmly believed that any notion of oppressing free speech should be challenged. We see increasing political discourse and do not want to end up with situations like we see in the USA with campus violence. Sam warned against the “chilling effect” of fear that comes from such thuggish behaviour. A prime example being what happened at a Jacob Rees-Mogg event where balaclava-wearing protestors disrupted events. We have a situation where the Shadow Chancellor believes it is acceptable to say that no Conservative minister should be able to show their face in public without facing direct action. Rather Sam favours debate, meeting with those you disagree with and calling their ideas out. While President of the Oxford Union Sam perused various controversial figures in his mission to challenge ideas, such as wanting to invite the head of the BNP and having tried to invite a member of Saddam Hussein’s regime, in order to challenge the individuals; we are told the latter invitation caused a bit of a dingdong with the Foreign Office and Home Office.
Q: (Asked by the UoB Conservatives Vice-Chair) Following the success of Jeremy Corbyn’s propaganda, how would Sam promote Conservativism among young people, and enable young Tories to feel confident in expressing their views?
A: Sam focused on exactly what he was now doing, touring the country, meeting young people and encouraging dialogue. This he hopes will encourage more students to engage with political debate.
As a note here I will say, UoB is extremely open to debate and has a fantastic political scene. However, even here people give out abuse to Conservatives at the Freshers Fair etc. and many First years rush to scribble down their names to receive the newsletter but are scared people will see them at the stall. I really believe Sam offers a solution to this, by engaging and listing to us and by actively promoting the Conservative message, not just on social media but actually in person, he is in ways embodying approachable Conservatism. This is more likely to lead to the environment we all want, one where we can agree or disagree, but ultimately can get along.
To further promote engagement the audience was then asked two questions, which I would encourage all readers to thing about.
- Regarding Universities, what is value for money?
- Fear of commodifying Higher Education and making it sound cheap by looking for value. Value is different to us all, but we should always question what it is we hope to achieve through Higher Education.
- What would we do if we were in his position for a day?
Lastly, the Vice-Chancellor gave his closing remarks. Having seen many a Universities minister (I believe he said he’s seen 10!) during his time as VC of UoB, he said a Universities minister needs to be three things to really succeed:
- Someone who cares about the job.
- Someone who recognises the importance of Universities and their work.
- Someone willing to listen and engage.
The VC concluded, and I would heartily agree, that Sam Gyimah is all three of these.
As a soon to be graduate, a current Representative for 8000 students, and a young Conservative, I can say Sam appears to be exactly what the party needs, a hardworking, caring, energetic ministers who is looking to the future.