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Entering the Lion’s Den: Can the Conservative establishment be tamed?

Justine Greening entered the lion’s den from her working class origins and took on the Conservative establishment. Her progress in advancing her social mobility mission illustrates the real priorities of the government and it looks ominous.

It is twelve months since Justine Greening lost her position as the Secretary of State for Education. At the time, this was considered a major setback for the cause of students from less advantaged backgrounds. She was considered to be a champion for our cause. Her replacement, Damian Hinds, is the product of an independent school and an Oxford PPE graduate. He could not be more different in experience or outlook. He immediately did what the current establishment seems to do when it cannot effectively govern. He set up a review on funding post-18 education under Philip Augar. That review is expected to emerge in February of this year. The aim last year would have been to counter the plans of Greening and extract better value from the fees that students pay. Time will tell of Augar has been compliant or produced something more radical and fair.
The establishment close ranks.

Now Justine Greening reveals the sorry truth and what she was planning when she was ousted from her position in Education. In an interview with th
e BBC this week she revealed that she was well into a plan to scrap tuition fees (‘Justine Greening wanted to scrap tuition fees.’ BBC News 23 January 2019). This was a clear manifesto pledge from the Labour party and she was working within the Conservative establishment on how to deliver it whilst working out how to make up the funding for universities in this scenario. She now reveals how this might be done through a graduate contribution scheme to fund England's universities. There would be no fees and consequently no loans. Instead, graduates would pay through a progressive taxation scheme similar to a National Insurance deduction linked to pay. In the context of this and Brexit, she says that “I think for British politics, we've got to ask ourselves some difficult questions about why party politics seemingly cannot rise to the challenge of delivering on long-term problems”. She is right and TEFS has consistently called for government to take responsibility for governing the country. This must mean delivering high quality education in a fair and equitable manner. It means planning student numbers and not throwing money at the universities in a poorly regulated market. Then only thinking of regulation via the Office for Students later when it is already too late. Only the incurably naïve would expect a differential market in fees to emerge. Indeed, Greening asks, "You have to confront the fact - did universities compete on price? No."
An apparent paradox came out earlier this month when Greening joined with David Willetts and Jo Johnson in condemning the predicted cut in fees revealed through leaks of the Augar review (‘University fees cut would hurt mobility and aid rich, PM told’ Guardian 5 January 2019). However, this must be taken in the context of defending the funding of universities. She obviously wants to see more fundamental reform and she would be right. She is quoted as saying, that last thing universities needed was a “cack-handed fees reform that means we go backward on social mobility and access”. Indeed, a comprehensive look across all of university funding is urgently needed.

Who is Justine Greening

She has been the Conservative Member of Parliament for Putney in London since 2005. Born in 1969, the 49 year old Greening attended Oakwood Comprehensive School in he home town of Rotherham between 1981 and 1988. Up to 1975 it was Secondary Technical School that focussed on mechanical, scientific and engineering skills to serve industry and science. This would have been in the context of an industrial steel town. The politics of the time surely moulded her outlook and view. She graduated from Southampton University in Business Economics and Accounting and then with an MBA from the London Business School. As for many talented people did at that time, she escaped into the finance industry.

In a speech in January 2017 at Price Waterhouse Coopers sponsored by the Sutton Trust (‘Justine Greening: education at the core of social mobility’) she was open in describing her background and her first job in Morrisons when she was studying for her A-Levels. She pressed on with the Social Mobility agenda that she had initiated later in 2017 with the policy paper ‘Improving social mobility through education’.

After falling out of favour with the Conservative ‘middle class’ establishment she pushed on with a commons motion in March of last year that March 2018 Motion ‘That this House has considered social mobility and the economy’. She described a situation that is very familiar to me coming from the industrial City of Coventry in the 1960s and 1970s. The precarious nature of
income and what was called home, the feeling of wanting fairness and no more and the determination to get out and do better. She told those present in the Commons Chamber,

“My father and grandfather worked in the steel industry. My father would probably have benefited from the national minimum wage being in place and he spent time unemployed, so I know what it is like to grow up in a family on benefits. I am sure that many young people who are starting out today feel the same as I did: I never wanted to have extra advantages over my peers; I just wanted to have the same opportunities as everyone else— a level playing field.”

This encapsulates what many people in her situation want their government to deliver. The economic deficit in the country that results from side-lining talented people because of having a less advantaged background is a disgrace that has gone on for too long. The ignorant behaviour of the
current Conservative party shows that this will not be reversed in this government.

To illuminate the way working outside of Government, Greening also set up the Social Mobility Pledge for employers ( The aim is to establish accredited employers that work with schools to improve access to jobs through better recruitment practices. See also ‘TEFS 30th March 2018 Social Mobility and the Economy: Another debate, plea and a pledge.’

She has consistently pressed for a fairer system that helps all students. Her perspective serves to illustrate the almost total social blindness of her colleagues in government. Government urgently needs more like her to set the agenda for a fairer future.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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