Attending to an audience of rather harried vice-chancellors at their annual conference is a tricky gig for a new universities minister, particularly when he has more than platitudes to deliver.
Ahead of Jo Johnson’s speech at the Universities UK meeting recently, there was a sense of anxiety about a reasonably unidentified political amount with a known program on university teaching in particular.
Johnson isn’t as available as he need to be, some whispered, and appears to already understand the answers when an audience is granted.
Their nervousness was intensified, possibly, by a suspicion that the companybusiness secretary, Sajid Javid, might show to be a less benign presence than Vince Cable television.
However exactly what was most striking about Johnson’s speech – which covered a lot of ground – was how carefully his program mapped to the contours of David Willetts’ tenure.
There was the flagship teaching quality structure, which continues the campaign to put students “at the heart of the system”; he signified complete stream ahead on alternative providers, regardless of the prominent issues that have dogged this effort to inject competition and challenge the evils of “incumbency”; there was a doubling down on demands for performance (threatening something serious for the research councils and regulatory authorities); and warm words but little action on the standoff over global students and the net migration count.
The continuing unease about this last point was explained in the days after the UUK gathering, with reports of restored lobbying of the prime minister by cabinet ministers in favour of eliminating students from the count.
However, as in the last Parliament, the house secretary Theresa May stays an immovable object on the other side of the argument.
Johnson did not attend to the topic in his speech, but when asked later on he seemed resigned to the intractability of the standoff.
ReactingReacting to a concern from Times HigherCollege, he consulted with fantastic enthusiasm about the value of overseas students (although the basic impression is that he is not a naturally garrulous political leader, regardless of his surname).
“It’s pretty clear the value that worldwide students bring, not simply to our universities but to our country,” Johnson stated. “They make viable courses that would not otherwise be practical, create a knowing environment that’s stimulating, and network domestic house students with the wider world.”
Up until now, so great – and so Willettsian too.
Sadly his response to the follow-up concern was equally familiar: would we see movement on the net migration count, which has currently added to a slowdown in the growth of student numbers from India?
“As you know, they are outside the cap, there is no limit on international student numbers, so this is a bit of a theoretical dispute,” Johnson replied.
So theoretical that no lower figures than the chancellor, company secretary and foreign secretary are stated to be asking David Cameron to overrule Might?
The absurdity is that this is still a dispute at all – as Johnson’s warm words explain, the argument was won long ago. But the dismal politics surrounding migration – hardened, possibly, by the pitiful and completely unconnected refugee crisis in Europe – remain to rule the day.