Our new universities minister enjoys coining snappy definitions. During the European referendum campaign, he called those frequent flyers born after Britain entered the common market “the Easyjet generation”. In our interview, he mourns the disillusionment of the “Northern Rock generation”, those whose politics were formed after the 2008 financial crisis. And at a campus near you, he may soon be assuring undergraduates that this is “the age of the student”.
The question the Conservative Party may be asking itself sooner than it realises, however, is whether it is also about to be the age of Samuel Phillip Gyimah.
For a junior minister, and one with a gobstopper of a job title (minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation), Sam Gyimah is increasingly difficult to ignore. Early on in his new job, he conceded that the abortive appointment of polemicist Toby Young to the nascent Office of Students “quite rightly” raised question marks. His would-be populist response to the lecturers’ pension strike was to encourage universities to compensate their students for missed lectures. Two weeks ago, he was a guest on the BBC’s Sunday Politics. The next morning, on Today, he announced plans to grade university courses gold, silver or bronze. No one has called him the guy who succeeded Jo Johnson for at least a month – which is something, since Gyimah only took over from Boris’s brother in January.
Before we talk, he is keen that I join him for a gig on his #SamOnCampus tour. These question-and-answer sessions at universities began in October at Brunel when he was still prisons minister. They are ministerial visits, paid for by us all, but he allows that they contain a political dimension. Canterbury Christ Church in early March is his fifth stop. It seems a curious location for him to publicise. Canterbury was the Conservatives’ most famous defeat in last year’s general election: after 99 years of Conservative representation, Canterbury threw out the sitting MP, Sir Julian Brazier, in favour of Labour’s Rosie Duffield. Gyimah, however, likes to take the battle to the enemy – which, let’s not pretend, is certainly one way to describe students if you are a Tory.
When I arrive at Christ Church, the atmospherics are good. Inside, the Sunday Politics team, filming a background piece, is training its camera on the university’s main glass door. Choral music wafts from one of the cathedral city choirs who are rehearsing in the hall behind. Stand by for an elevating entrance. Gyimah, however, is late, owing to a train-platform mix-up, and when he arrives it is, anticlimactically, through the wrong door.
He is quickly persuaded by the BBC to enter again through the right one, where he is greeted once more by the vice-chancellor, Professor Rama Thirunamachandran. For a potential saviour of his party, it is an inelegant second coming. Meanwhile, a civil servant scurries round Canterbury in a cab looking for a cash machine from which to pay off its driver.
Gyimah’s tour of the university is necessarily short. He turns down the vice-chancellor’s offer of a visit to the old prison, once home to the Krays but now acquired by the university. He saw enough jails in his last post. Mid-traipse, in a familiar ministerial tic, he demands that one of his entourage take his case. Back in the main building, he goes off to talk to Tory students. They tell him how acutely they feel academe’s “institutional hostility to conservative ideas”.
Outside the lecture hall where he will take questions, his potential tormentors drink wine in moderation. Tie-less now, he relaxes a little. The expected picket by striking academics from the University of Kent has not materialised (or maybe it is at the wrong entrance). A student grabs a selfie with him. Most striking to me are two women undergraduates who grumble to him about the counselling they have received at the university. One said her counsellor was like a “sponge”. Another got “bad advice”. This is a hot issue. Posters announce a student union election is underway for president (wellbeing). A candidate promises “more mental health support” and “24-hour facilities”.
Gyimah is expecting the session to be like PMQs but “rowdier”. In fact, it is polite, with the only real aggression from a sarky lecturer at the back. No one, however, sounds remotely Tory – bar Joe Egerton, a crusty old Tory county council candidate, who launches a weird theological attack on “usurious” student loan interest rates.
My mother pawned her wedding gifts to get by. She did everything she could for us, and her big bet was education
The minister is rather brilliant however: smiley, solicitous and self-deprecating. He says he prefers to stand rather than sit on the stool “with my legs hanging in the air, me not being particularly tall”. (Undeniable.) Rather than let slip he went to Oxford, he refers to the Oxford Union, of which he was president, as his “student debating society”. Down with the kids, the 41-year-old insists “schools have got to make engineering and science a lot cooler”.
He asks what the audience would do if it had his job for a day. A student says she would make the curriculum not “just about pale white men”. His line on this, which I get again the next day, is: “To divorce yourself from your history is to divorce yourself from yourself.” At the end, Thirunamachandran congratulates him on his impressive grasp of his brief. From the 100 or so listening, the applause is warm.
The meeting has been chaired by the vice-chancellor with some help from the student union president, Krum Tashev. I look at the three of them – the academic of Sri Lankan heritage, the student leader from Bulgaria and the minister born of Ghanaian parents – and think what a splendidly multicultural picture of leadership it presents. The next morning, I look on Twitter, however, and a woman has tweeted her “disappointment” that on International Women’s Day it was an all-male panel.
“And that’s modern Britain in its full glory,” Gyimah laughs in his office at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy in Westminster. His shirt collar is once more open. Ties, he explains puzzlingly, hurt his back, which he has injured lifting and carrying his two children, aged three and twenty months.
I ask him about the students with their therapy grievances. It is a long time ago, but I would never have expected my college to sort my head out. “I think, as the cohort of students becomes more diverse and broader, the job of a university in terms of supporting a student gets wider and wider and mental health is a big issue, a really big issue across universities.”
Why? “I don’t know what the underlying reason for it is. I’m not a specialist in that. But it is real. It is real.”
Yet has he not said that the “uni experience” should be “demanding and disorientating”? It sounds to me as if today’s students crave “safe spaces”, warnings of danger areas in classical texts and a decolonialised curriculum absent of historic horror stories.
“I think there are clinical ways you deal with people who have got actual mental health problems, whether it’s anxiety, depression or something equally serious. In terms of what is a rich university experience, it should be demanding. It should be an assault on the senses, is what I have said.”
Are young people up for it, though? “I think a lot of young people are made of sterner stuff. I’m also very conscious that we live – especially with social media – in an age where you can exist in your own echo chamber. What you don’t want is for the university experience to replicate the echo chamber that you can create for yourself online.
“That’s why I find it alarming, and I’d say disconcerting, when I hear people talking about eradicating, exorcising figures from history from the curriculum. Whether it’s for religious or political reasons, I think that’s the kind of stuff you see in a totalitarian state.”
Did he feel oppressed when he was at Oxford and walked past Oriel College’s statue of Cecil Rhodes? “Never. I think universities are places where part of developing your critical faculties is to challenge these ideas. What we learnt to do was not to shy away from them but learn how to dispute, to argue.”
This is not, I say, the response you might expect from someone whose family came from Africa. He says he finds such assumptions frustrating. “So people say, ‘No, he’s a black MP, he must be this …’ They assume, firstly, that you must be Labour because you’re black. Actually, I am the sum total of a whole range of life experiences. This sort of identity politics that is just trying to define people by their identity and what that identity means today – not seeing people for the whole – I think it’s quite pernicious in politics.”
Does he ever say, “As a black man …”?
“No. And no two black men are the same, any more than two white men. For me, I’d say if I’m defined by anything I’m probably defined more by hardship and overcoming adversity – that’s the experience of a lot of the black community, but it’s also the experience of a lot of other disadvantaged people – rather than by my race.”
No two black men are the same, any more than two white men. I’m defined more by hardship and adversity
Of hardship and adversity his first experience came early. He was born in 1975 in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire – the constituency of Benjamin Disraeli, the inventor of the one-nation Conservatism Gyimah espouses. His father, also Samuel, a GP, had married his mother, Comfort Mainoo, a midwife, the year before. By the time he was six, their marriage had failed. His relationship with his father, a devout Christian whose hobbies included politics and history, was thereafter tenuous (he died three years ago). Comfort moved her young family back to Accra, the capital of Ghana.
“So it fell to my mother, a 32-year-old midwife, to bring up three kids on her own. Some of my earliest memories are of when we arrived back in Ghana. My mother, she pawned some of her wedding gifts initially just to get by. She did everything she could for us, and her big bet was education. She’d say, ‘If you take the education seriously, then that’s going to be your inheritance.’”
From a middle-class start, Sam’s upbringing was no longer comfortable, but when there was money his mother would take the family to a restaurant. She wanted them to learn how to eat “posh”. “She didn’t want us to be defined by our circumstances at home.”
As the oldest, some days Sam needed to take days off school to look after his siblings while his mother did shifts as a midwife or ran her sideline, a greetings card business. Nevertheless, he did well at Achimota, the school that educated Robert Mugabe. At 16, he moved back to England to continue his education. For a while, before the rest of the family returned, he lived with his father in Buntingford, Hertfordshire, where he now ran a surgery.
His new school was Ward Freman, a rural, socially mixed but overwhelmingly white comprehensive. He arrived with unmodishly African attitudes to education. In Ghana, you learnt or ended up poor. Here, sixth-formers protested about school uniforms. He felt they were missing the point. He was soon noticed by his history master, Neal Greenhalgh.
“It was an act of faith on behalf of his father because I am sure he could have gone to Haileybury or some other public school,” Greenhalgh tells me. “And he was a wonderful young man, a terrific guy. Very confident. He arrived not knowing whether he would cope in the UK educationally, but wherever he had been in Ghana had done a very good job.”
He was popular, too, an accomplished sprinter and rugby player. He was outgoing but also prepared to hear out others’ opinions, even about him. Some things do not change.
At Somerville, Oxford, he read politics, philosophy and economics. “I wanted to go to Oxford because I felt if I could it would make something of my life,” Gyimah says, but some things puzzled him. Why did people ask what school he went to? Surely there were far too many for all their names to be known. Then came trouble. He was not, he says with deliberate vagueness, receiving the financial support he was expecting, and the college bursar began sending letters about unpaid bills.
“I went to see him and he asked me what was going on and I explained a bit of it and I just said, ‘But I’m convinced I will get a good job at the end of my degree.’ He looked at me completely stunned.”
Yet he came back with a deal by which Gyimah would pay back what he owed once he started earning. “It was like a maintenance loan before maintenance loans existed,” he says.
He joined the Oxford Union and was elected president in 1997 (the year Tony Blair came to power). He says he pioneered proper manifestos at the union. Less elevatedly, he dressed for one debate in a blond wig and a nun’s habit. A friend from those days says his niceness stood out, in a club not known for it: “He was genuinely in it to help people.” Another contemporary student politician was less effusive, expressing polite off-the-record surprise that Gyimah had risen so far. He left Oxford with what he calls a “good degree”, but he won’t say whether it was a 2:1 or a 2:2 (and Oxford refuses to say, because Gyimah has not put his degree “in the public domain”).
At Oxford he met his wife, Nicky Black, a Hong Kong-raised New Zealander who also became union president. He did not know it then, however. At the time he was in a seven-year relationship with another union leading light. In the 2010s, a “starter marriage” came to nothing, although its termination was not his idea. Single again, he connected with Black on Facebook while on a visit to America. He thought he had a date because she sounded so positive, but she turned up with her boyfriend. “So I ended up having this really awkward conversation with her and this guy. Then nothing happened for a couple of years, then we reconnected and, yeah, it happened.”
My agent thought I’d be upset by racist abuse on my ballot papers, but I just thought, it’s their problem, not mine
Married in the St Mary Undercroft chapel of the Commons in September, 2012, they live in south London with their son and toddler daughter. Black continues to work in corporate responsibility. “As a professional couple, we’re always juggling family life and work like everyone else. It is hard.”
At Oxford, in his heart, he wanted to be a lawyer, but, wary of spending more time in debt while training, he joined Goldman Sachs as an investment banker. Somerville got its cash. He left to co-found a company that retrained the unemployed and low paid to be lorry drivers.
With the election of David Cameron as Tory leader in 2005, however, he became increasingly enthused with modernising the Conservatives. In From the Ashes…, a book of essays he edited that year, he wrote that the party had been in a “persistent vegetative state” since 1997 and needed to change.
He stood for an unwinnable local council seat and was then placed on Cameron’s A-list of super-candidates for the 2010 election. He tried for Gosport – standing with a placard saying “Let’s Get Gosport Moving” on the A32 – and was eventually accepted by East Surrey. He resents the suggestion he was parachuted in beneath a canopy of positive discrimination. “A friend of mind said, ‘Congratulations on joining David Cameron’s parachute regiment.’ I just said, ‘I don’t see myself in a parachute regiment. I see myself more in the Black Watch.’”
Has he faced racial abuse? “Load of times,” he replies. During that first election night count, the returning officer and his election agent conspired to keep him from the ballot papers vilely spoilt by racist abuse. “My agent was just pushing me away. They thought I’d be very upset by it, and I wasn’t. I did think, ‘How tragic to go all the way to the polling station to do that.’ I thought, ‘Well, I’ve won the majority and it’s their problem, not mine.’”
He took with similar equanimity a later meeting with Margaret Thatcher. Hearing where he was MP, she said, “There can’t be many of you there.”
“She said it in a very innocent way. There was nothing to it. I just said, ‘There are! It’s a safe Conservative seat.’ It didn’t upset me at all. There is difference and how you treat difference, and that’s completely different to bigotry.”
I suspect his skin colour helps him on his campus tours, a point of identification with potential opponents. This, and his ability to talk like a human rather than a politician, is valuable. It will only do so much, however, to counter his real problem in this, the age of the student. The policy of turning one in two of young people into graduates can result only in an ever-growing number of keen-to-vote liberal-leftish voters, all furious with the Tories for placing them in debt. In short, his party is stuffed. As he admits, there were a “lot of budding Corbynistas” in last night’s audience.
“But the Corbyn offer is unsustainable. Politics is about ideas. We’ve got to win this battle. The Corbyn idea, that [higher education] is free, is not sustainable. Every opposition in this country has always offered an unsustainable policy platform to students. The worst thing about Corbyn is that it will ultimately lead to disillusionment because no one can deliver what he offers. The Liberal Democrats found that and it led to their political demise.”
So Corbyn needs to get in and fail before students vote Tory? “No, I think Conservatives need to go in there and argue. It will take a consistent and persistent effort to show that, firstly, Conservatives are paid-up members of the human race, but also that there is an alternative way of doing things. And if we’re not doing that, then we’ll all be stuffed.”
As to unsustainable education policies, I do wonder about this new idea of grading university courses. With university places uncapped, will it not lead to the bronze courses rusting away from lack of applicants? As the announcement is made after we meet, I have to make do with his emailed response.
“This will,” it goes, “rightly place a laser-like focus on teaching and what it delivers for students and will make universities up their game. Lax accountability is not in the interests of students. Wealthy business graduates have access to reams of information and rankings when choosing an MBA, so why not make similar information available for 18-year-olds, where every penny counts?”
Gyimah, who is refreshingly ready to concede market failure where it is plain – housing, for instance – seems here to be relying upon a market in education to salvage his party’s dire reputation among the students. Doubtless many of their teachers will discern a strategy of divide and rule. Were he to pull this trick off, however – were a university town such as Canterbury to turn blue again – then persuading his own party to make him its leader would look like a cinch. As his sceptical Oxford Union contemporary said to me, you have to wonder: how far will Gyimah go?