After a hectic two years (and eight months) as universities and science minister, Jo Johnson is off to the Department for Transport. In the time it might have taken to get an accelerated degree, pretty much everything changed around him – the government, its majority, our membership of the EU, the PM, Chancellor and Education Secretary.
His first boss was the free market Thatcherite Sajid Javid at BIS, and even that department rapidly disappeared around him, splitting into DfE and BEIS. It was no small feat to keep his head in such turbulent times while so many around him were losing theirs.
The minister for wonks
In policy, he was a more fortunate minister than most. Johnson was appointed in May 2015 after the Conservatives unexpectedly won a majority in the General Election with a manifesto he helped to write, including the famous promise to introduce a new measure of teaching excellence in higher education. Then taking up this baton as the minister, he was able to publish a green then white paper and see both into legislation (albeit in the dying days of that short-lived Parliament). And then finally just about saw the coming to life of his Office for Students on 1st January this year.
That’s a complete span of policy through a lifecycle that very few ministers enjoy and as a self-confessed wonk, his interest in the craft of policymaking is to be admired whether you agree with the shape of its outcomes or not.
There were huge bumps on the way of course. As late as the wash-up phase of the HE Bill, Theresa May had threatened to pull the plug on the whole thing because of Lords amendments on international students. In the politics of Brexit and reinforced by her prejudices while at the Home Office, it was something she cared rather more about than Johnson’s HE market drive through OfS and TEF. But this was always his mission and he stuck stubbornly to it.
His legacy for science will prove far less contentious, although there has been just as much upheaval with the creation of UKRI. But this came with a less critical tone and greater desire to work with the sector than against it. Note, for example, the considerably less controversial process of appointing that board. It is also important to credit him with consistent, wholehearted support for science funding in negotiations with both the EU and the Treasury. And for scientists and all academics and their continued free movement.
How to lose friends and alienate people
It is hard to say whether it was his final appointments to the OfS board and that of Toby Young in particular which is what ultimately did for him in the reshuffle. It certainly won’t have helped – but it seems likely that just as Justine Greening his boss at the Department for Education – his card was already marked as increasingly divergent opinions emerged about what these briefs should be focused on emerged between DfE and Number 10.
Either way, Johnson’s last public appearance as HE Minister was to defend Toby Young in Parliament. It was a political misjudgement at the worst possible time, overstretching his hand against widespread, and ferocious opposition when Young was about to quit anyway.
But in many ways, he will be seen as a successful minister. He was never guilty of ‘going native’ or being captured by supplier interests – perhaps the cardinal sin in the eyes of many politicians, and something David Willetts was often criticised for in Whitehall circles. Sometimes colleagues in the sector forget that the qualities that make a good or effective minister are judged entirely differently in politics.
Even when Theresa May became Prime Minister with a rather different agenda, set out in her 2017 manifesto (which Johnson didn’t write and liked rather less). When questioned about the details of the 2017 version – with its review of tertiary education, institutes of technology and greater emphasis on technical education – he preferred to change the subject – usually to VC pay, competition or free speech.
While Jo Johnson will be politely thanked for his engagement and accessibility, I suspect the warmth less likely to flow from higher education than it has towards Justine Greening from the wider education sector following her departure this week.
Perhaps it’s because he was often too quick to criticise and to blame…. From closed shops and complacency to lamentable teaching, lack of free speech and vice chancellor pay. Defending his then green paper reforms, in what seems like ages ago now, he described HE as “a market that hasn’t had sufficient demand-side pressures in an optimal way”.
Speaking in these terms, he simply didn’t use the same language or have a shared understanding of the sector that many in it would have preferred.
The bigger picture
It seems likely that in the 5-10 mins offered to new appointees, May is more likely to have told the new universities minister Sam Gyimah to focus on her major review of HE than on implementing HERA or continuing to shake up the HE market.
For the Prime Minister and others in the Conservative Party, this broader politics is now far more important and needs fresh attention. Winning back younger voters and university constituencies and at least neutralising the toxic politics of high fees, interest rates and repayments. That’s what May (and now Damian Hinds and Sam Gyimah) will need to achieve alongside the policy detail of improving technical skills and productivity.
In one sense Johnson’s legacy is obvious. A Higher Education and Research Act – and they don’t come along very often, a new regulatory system spearheaded by the Office for Students, the Teaching Excellence (and Student Outcomes) Framework and establishing UK Research and Innovation.
Taken all together, they represent the biggest shake-up of English higher education for twenty years. But for now, at least, the longevity of these reforms, together with the funding system that underpins them along with Johnson’s own political reputation remains ‘under review’.