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Look who’s back: Jo Johnson returns to universities brief

It looks like Jo Johnson is returning to the universities brief in government. Jim Dickinson has a think about what that might mean for the sector.
This article is more than 4 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Look who’s back! Jo Johnson has been appointed a minister at the Department for Education and Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, effectively his old job – with an added bonus.

In the David Willetts days, the post got to sit in at Cabinet, and that extra bauble is back too. This is in fact the fourth time he’s been appointed to the role – David Cameron installed him in May 2015, then Theresa May in June 2016 and July 2017, and now by Boris Johnson. Friend-of-the-show Andy Westwood took a look at his legacy for us when he was sacked from the brief in 2018. He’s a prominent remainer (and People’s Vote backer) in a “Vote Leave” government – but away from the Brexit issue (where “no deal” could have grave implications for universities), we’ve had a quick think about what it might all mean for the sector.


Jo Johnson was no fan of Theresa May’s review of Post-18 Education and Funding – denying it would ever happen in public (“the system is always under review”) and fiercely resisting in private – so much so that both Johnson and Secretary of State Justine Greening were sacked to make way for ministers that would back it. His view when it emerged?

Looks like Augar (as predicted) will destabilise uni finances, imperil many courses & reverse progress in widening access. Reducing fees to £7.5k will leave funding hole HMT won’t fill + benefit only highest earning grads at expense of general taxpayer. Bad policy, bad politics.

That’s not to say that he’s on record as opposing the whole thing. For example, he’s said that “we need to…cease to use the terminology of debt and loans” in student finance, backing the “lipstick on the pig” passages in Augar on making the system sound more like a graduate tax. But the fundamentals in Augar now look significantly less likely.

International students

Jo Johnson hasn’t ignored higher education from the back benches. Specifically, he’s spent months securing cross-party support to an amendment to a key Brexit immingration bill that would see the return of two-year post-study work visas for international students. He also got new Home Secretary Priti Patel on board. Now that he’s back in government, straddled between the two departments that sponsored the government’s international education strategy, expect a considerable softening of the previously hostile environment in this space.


Sometimes projects are developed by civil servants that are merely fronted by a sponsor minister. But when it comes to the TEF, it’s hard to underestimate the level of personal interest Jo Johnson took in its development. He wrote the Conservative manifesto that contained the “if there’s a REF, there should be TEF” line in 2015 – worked unusually closely with DfE officials to tweak it – and was miffed when he had to accept amendments to HERA that caused a statutory review of it. He returns with that review complete and on his desk – and those keen to kill off the exercise at subject level, or hoping that metrics and medals would fade, may well be disappointed. Don’t expect the Pearce review to emerge this side of the recess, either.

Boris and Gavin

His new bosses Boris and Gavin are worthy of a look too. Gavin Williamson has never had much to say about higher education, but it’s worth remembering that Williamson was once a chair of Conservative Students, shortly after it was shut down and merged with other tory youth groups into Conservative Future by William Hague. He’s unlikely to have a soft spot for NUS.

There will plenty of privately-schooled Oxbridge colleagues around the cabinet table, but Gavin is a state schooled, Bradford Uni graduate – and his social science degree doesn’t have the most stellar LEO signals in the sheets. He’d have to have some brass neck to pitch a university courses “value” tent on that ground.

Meanwhile Boris himself has a history in higher education – he held the shadow brief for a period – and while Boris Johnson’s previous views should never be taken as a guide to future decisions, his speech to Politeia back in 2006 probably offers clues. He was not a man who thought that entry to university should be restricted, believing that vocational routes should be levelled up:

I certainly don’t believe in some mad plan to try to compel a certain proportion of people to stick to vocational courses and thereby reduce university numbers.

And there are clues on the role of the state. regulation and the “market” that have largely come to pass since:

Is it really right that the Quality Assurance Agency should blizzard universities with requirements about “ethics”, and then take absolutely no interest in what seems to be a pretty blatant grade-inflation scandal at De Montfort? Is it really the role of HEFCE, a government agency, to tell successful universities whether or not they can expand?

Anything else?

We know that Jo Johnson wanted to see work done on student contracts and legal rights – he announced that his new regulator would look at them back in 2017 but OfS has been dragging heels since. He’s a fan of a “one nation” approach to science funding – he’s on record as saying that the country’s recovery will rely on a “fundamental rebalancing” of the economy with audits to map research and innovation strengths and infrastructure in different parts of the country, and an “action plan” to tackle the lack of diversity in science.

And we shouldn’t forget that lots of the “snowflake student” stuff, and grade inflation concern, was all being stirred up by JJ long before Sam Gyimah went on his tour of UK campuses.

4 responses to “Look who’s back: Jo Johnson returns to universities brief

  1. “Bradford Uni graduate – and his social science degree doesn’t have the most stellar LEO signals in the sheets.”

    Which is maybe why Bradford has had to do a major rejig of its Social Sciences and Political Science offer over the last few years, to keep getting the bums on seats.
    Consumer information and consumer choice works.

  2. Johnson apparently took an MBA at INSEAD, which is a social sciences degree, like all business studies qualifications; and apparently many of his Conservative colleagues gained PPE degrees, which are basically social science degrees under another name; all this will be richly ironic if and when they start in on the traditional British practice of lambasting and under -funding anything that has to do with the study of society.

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