Last week’s furore over Michael Gove’s ‘leaked’ plans to abolish GSCEs and bring back the O Level was an interesting moment for the education policy community who largely thought they had plumbed the depths of their disdain for the Education Secretary.
As a proposal it was eye-catching, and also easy to condemn (see: Michael Gove as the ‘enemy of promise’, putting a ‘cap on aspiration’ etc). The smartest analysis came from Chris Cook at the Financial Times who showed precisely, and with seeming relative ease, why the plan would be counterproductive for social mobility.
Nick Clegg and David Cameron were caught off-guard; Clegg issued a swift and furious public reaction. And Cameron let it be known that he was ‘seething’. Clegg’s position only served to highlight his and the Lib Dem’s relative weakness. As for the Prime Minster, the fact that the Education Secretary chose not to go through proper channels and conventions in his policy kite flying says more about the shambolic policy operation at Number 10 than it does Cameron’s own position. Ministerial kite flying has always been tolerated up to a point, but this was an extreme sports version; riskier, but ultimately more satisfying at the pay-off.
There’s a settled view on the left about Michael Gove and he has few friends in any part of the education sector. There has traditionally been a great deal of overlap between those constituencies; something that Gove knows well and clearly doesn’t care about.
On the right however, Gove’s reputation is improving by the day. Though himself not a member of the traditional right wing of the Tory party, his policies are delighting them. What’s more, he has started to capture the mood of frustration across the Tory ranks about the Coalition and the difficulty it faces in enacting true blue policies.
Last week’s manoeuvre over GCSCEs cemented Gove’s position as ‘darling’ of the right and talk of him as a future leader has started to warm up. This was a great pay-off for Gove who finished the week strengthened and with more political capital than when he started. A staggering thought when you consider the huge opposition to his ideas, and his methods which so upset his boss and much of the rest of his Government.
As Paul Goodman wrote on Conservativehome, Michael Gove’s tanks are now rolling and it’s likely that he’ll press on. This whole affair has taken us closer to the expected Gove higher education land grab. With a scarcity of posts more senior to him, one of the few ways he could cash in his political capital is by having his brief expanded.
If anyone in higher education thought that Gove might be preferable to David Willetts and Vince Cable (I admit, there are few outside the Russell Group), then last week’s events should give them pause for thought. We’ve seen the way Michael Gove does business, we have an increasingly clear grasp of his backwards thinking about education and a much better understanding about his ambition.
No one is losing any sleep about the Russell Group’s health as a group of universities, or political clout as a policy actor. But their influence would dramatically increase were Michael Gove to take control of the HE brief. He’s made it clear that he favours these institutions above all others, it’s obvious that he needs the brief in order to complete his plans for education. What he might actually do in such a scenario is anyone’s guess (plenty of doomsday scenarios have been drawn up, for example where he limits Degree Awarding Powers to 24 universities in the name of ‘excellence’). But most of higher education knows that it needs to be worried.
David Willetts’ ultimate failure could be his alienation of the higher education sector, to such an extent that when the chips are down, there’s no one willing to defend BIS. But they must and it would be a small price to pay to avoid the policy horror show Michael Gove is bringing to a university near you.