What can we expect from Jo Johnson’s return?

In his first term as universities minister, Jo Johnson enacted radical policy changes. Rachel Hewitt considers what we can expect during his second turn in the post

July 26, 2019
Jo Johnson on his bike
Source: Getty

Within about eight hours of giving his first speech as UK prime minister, Boris Johnson had conducted a full overhaul of cabinet with almost all of Theresa May’s cabinet ministers being reshuffled or losing their positions. 

One of his last appointments of the day was his brother, Jo Johnson, who was made Minister of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education. It is still not clear whether this is a direct replacement for Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, which was previously held by Chris Skidmore, who has become minister for health and social care. 

However, Johnson is clearly set to play a prominent role for higher education, particularly as he will attend cabinet. 

Johnson formerly held the role of universities minister from May 2015 to January 2018, so this appointment brings him back into the higher education space. But what does his previous record tell us of the future impact he might have on HE and the policy landscape to come? 

Johnson had a significant impact during his time in office. He oversaw the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act 2018, which changed the nature of higher education regulation in England, notably removing the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access and bringing in the Office for Students (OfS) and UK Research and Innovation. 

Johnson’s vision for the OfS was to improve student perceptions of value for money, even discussing a roll-out of student contracts between all students and universities

It is not often that a minister will have the opportunity to make such significant policy changes and then come back into post after the changes have been fully enacted. It will be interesting to see whether Johnson finds the OfS, which has had a year in operation and is about to gain its full regulatory powers, to have lived up to his expectation. 

Another policy owned by Johnson was the teaching excellence framework. His plan for the TEF was to incentivise universities to “rebalance the pull between teaching and research”. The TEF has come under a fair amount of criticism, though, with student unions boycotting the National Student Survey as a protest against the planned increase in fees for gold or silver rated institutions and the Royal Statistical Society describing it as having “many serious statistical problems”.  

In January this year, an independent review of the TEF began, led by Dame Shirley Pearce, former vice-chancellor of Loughborough University. The review is due to announce its recommendations in the autumn. It is likely therefore that one of Johnson’s first policy interventions will be to respond to the outcomes, which will undoubtably be influenced by how closely the proposed changes stick to his original vision for the TEF. 

Focus in HE policy over recent months has been dominated by the Augar review and Brexit. However, Johnson in post could mean a change in approach to both these areas for the HE sector.

Johnson has always been firmly against a review of tuition fees, from when it was first rumoured. The detail of the report and recommendations have not changed his mind on this; when the Augar report was released he described it as a threat to “destabilise uni finances, imperil many courses and reverse progress in widening access”.

Given that Boris Johnson has avoided commenting on the recommendations from the Augar review to date (other than pledging his support for upping funding to further education colleges), Jo Johnson’s appointment seems to indicate that we are unlikely to see the proposed changes to the tuition fee system enacted.

On Brexit, Johnson is one of the only newly appointed cabinet ministers to have been a strong Remainer, quitting his previous role as transport minister to support a second referendum. 

His position has clearly altered to fit in with the new administration, as Boris Johnson has called for all members of his cabinet to commit to no deal if he cannot achieve a deal with the European Union. 

However, Jo Johnson is focused on ensuring a better relationship with international students. Earlier this year he tabled an amendment to the Immigration Bill, which would allow international students to stay in the UK to work for up to two years after they finished their degrees, supported by the home secretary at the time, Sajid Javid. 

The amendment would also take international students out of the net migration target. Given Theresa May’s close links to the clamping down on international students, it’s likely this change of both leader and HE minister will allow for a change in policy that takes a fairer approach to international students. 

In a time when our future relationship with the EU remains uncertain, it can only be beneficial to the higher education sector to have a minister in post who understands the virtues of our current relationship with the EU.  

Jo Johnson’s previous term as universities minister led to some fairly radical changes to higher education policy. It is therefore likely that his appointment will again see significant policy interventions.

It is still uncertain whether these will be improving upon his previous changes or focused on new areas entirely. However, there are two things most universities will see as favourable: it is likely that Augar will fade away and that we’ll see a more welcoming approach to international students. 

Rachel Hewitt is director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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