Leader: Johnson must keep eye on ball

May 12, 2006

Seldom has the appointment of an Education Secretary been welcomed with such enthusiasm by the higher education community as Alan Johnson's last week. Whatever the view of the fees legislation that was the launch pad for his Cabinet career, Mr Johnson won widespread respect during his time as Higher Education Minister. The hope is that, having endured 18 months in which they barely seemed to register on Ruth Kelly's list of priorities, universities will come in from the cold.

Perhaps they will: Mr Johnson is a rarity as Education Secretary in arriving with more knowledge about universities than schools. But as Higher Education Minister he demonstrated a determination to focus on the issue of the day to the exclusion of all else. At the time, this meant winning support for top-up fees and kicking potential distractions such as research concentration into the long grass. In his new post, persuading backbench MPs to back trust schools and city academies will demand at least as much of his time as top-up fees ever did. Once the Schools Bill becomes an Act, higher education may be back on his agenda, but no one should expect noticeable change before then. Mr Johnson's withdrawal from a planned speech at this week's launch of Universities UK's report on higher education's contribution to the economy confirmed this.

Mr Johnson would be wise not to take his eye off the higher education ball for too long, however. That other Mr Johnson (Boris), the Shadow Higher Education Minister, showed this week in a speech to the Politeia think-tank that the Conservatives were developing a higher education policy that might prove far more popular than the succession of disjointed and often impractical ideas that have emerged from Central Office in recent years. There is a long way to go, but a switch to genuine support for mass higher education (as a social and not solely economic good) with the promise of less Government interference will force Labour and the Liberal Democrats to work harder for their traditional support.

There are several areas in which the new Education Secretary could make his mark. He will not want to be drawn into the pay dispute - indeed, he has already developed partial amnesia about his previous comments on the proportion of fee income that might go into salaries - but it may become difficult to stand aside if cancelled graduation ceremonies become a midsummer talking point. The fate of the research assessment exercise also cannot be ignored, even if it attracts less public attention. And the impact of his previous successes on fees will occupy his time in the short and the longer terms. He may have to decide whether to intervene to prevent a free-for-all in clearing among universities with empty places, and he will certainly have to consider whether the current fee limit should eventually rise. Higher education may have to take a back seat in the immediate future, but these are all questions that will have to be addressed before long.

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