The mystery of Jo Swinson's appointment as equalities minister

Why was the Lib Dem appointed a week after everyone else?

You may have missed it amid the cacophony of "bigotgate", but eight days after the reshuffle started it’s still going on, and Britain has woken up this morning with a new equalities minister – Jo Swinson.

There were many things in last week's reshuffle that upset the Lib Dems. The appointment of Owen Paterson as Environment Secretary and Chris Grayling as Justice Secretary went down universally badly, the return of David Laws was greeted with an equal amount of cheers and jeers (depending on which wing of the party you spoke to to), and there was a certain amount of disquiet about how we appeared to lose all influence on international policy with the removal of Lib Dem ministers from both the Foreign Office and the MoD.

But the one thing that rankled above all else was the removal of the equalities portfolio from the hands of a much respected Lib Dem minister, Lynne Featherstone, and its transfer to a Tory. Unmitigated fury and universal condemnation has been the theme of the week. And now it appears something has been done, coalition conversations have been had and Swinson has been named as an equalities minister – "our" equalities minister, to quote Clegg.

This move will delight just about every Lib Dem. Swinson is a rising star, much admired for her work on campaigns like Body Confidence, and she will do a fantastic job. But once the euphoria subsides, other questions arise. For example, the matter of why the previous equalities minister, Lynn Featherstone, had this responsibility removed. Everyone thought she did a first class job – so where did she go wrong? There are now no fewer than three equalities ministers – what will they all do? And why has Swinson been appointed a week after everyone else – it couldn’t be evidence of coalition government not quite working? Bit of a row, perhaps?

I feel a bit like the kid for whom Father Christmas came a week late. Thank you for the presents – I’m thrilled. But where have you been for the last week - stuck up the chimney? And why are you giving me my old toys back?

New equalities minister Jo Swinson with Nick Clegg earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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The price of accessing higher education

Should young people from low income backgrounds abandon higher education, or do they need more support to access it? 

The determination of over 400,000 young people to go into higher education (HE) every year, despite England having the most expensive HE system in the world, and particularly the determination of over 20,000 young people from low income backgrounds to progress to HE should be celebrated. Regrettably, there are many in the media and politics that are keen to argue that we have too many students and HE is not worth the time or expense.

These views stem partly from the result of high levels of student debt, and changing graduate employment markets appearing to diminish the payoff from a degree. It is not just economics though; it is partly a product of a generational gap. Older graduates appear to find it hard to come to terms with more people, and people from dissimilar backgrounds to theirs, getting degrees.  Such unease is personified by Frank Field, a veteran of many great causes, using statistics showing over 20 per cent of graduates early in their working lives are earning less than apprentices to make a case against HE participation. In fact, the same statistics show that for the vast majority a degree makes a better investment than an apprenticeship. This is exactly what the majority of young people believe. Not only does it make a better financial investment, it is also the route into careers that young people want to pursue for reasons other than money.

This failure of older "generations" (mainly politics and media graduates) to connect with young people’s ambitions has now, via Labour's surprising near win in June, propelled the question of student finance back into the spotlight. The balance between state and individual investment in higher education is suddenly up for debate again. It is time, however, for a much wider discussion than one only focussed on the cost of HE. We must start by recognising the worth and value of HE, especially in the context of a labour market where the nature of many future jobs is being rendered increasingly uncertain by technology. The twisting of the facts to continually question the worth of HE by many older graduates does most damage not to the allegedly over-paid Vice Chancellors, but the futures of the very groups that they purport to be most concerned for: those from low income groups most at risk from an uncertain future labour market.

While the attacks on HE are ongoing, the majority of parents from higher income backgrounds are quietly going to greater and greater lengths to secure the futures of their children – recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that in London nearly half of all pupils have received private tuition. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that they are doing this so their children can progress into anything other than higher education. It is fundamental that we try and close the social background gap in HE participation if we wish to see a labour market in which better jobs, regardless of their definition, are more equally distributed across the population. Doing this requires a national discussion that is not constrained by cost, but also looks at what schools, higher education providers and employers can do to target support at young people from low income backgrounds, and the relative contributions that universities, newer HE providers and further education colleges should make. The higher education problem is not too many students; it is too few from the millions of families on average incomes and below.

Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). NEON are partnering with the New Statesman to deliver a fringe event at this year's Conservative party conference: ‘Sustainable Access: the Future of Higher Education in Britain’ on the Monday 2nd October 2017 from 16:30-17:30pm.