He turned up late, asked the anxious organisers “Where can I tie my bike?”, shrugged off reporters’ questions about his prime ministerial ambitions, then ambled on stage to give a performance sprinkled with the usual quota of gags.
But behind the comedy act, Boris Johnson’s message at the Global University Summit 2013 was serious: our universities cannot continue to be hobbled by immigration policy, over which the Home Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have been at loggerheads for so long.
The most recent immigration figures showed that 190,000 people arrived to study in the UK in the year to September 2012, a fall of 56,000 on the previous year. Mark Harper, the immigration minister, hailed the statistics as proof that the government was “continuing to bring immigration back under control”.
Oxford should not only award Thatcher a posthumous doctorate, Boris said, it ‘should name a college in honour of their greatest post-war benefactor’
But speaking at last week’s summit, Boris pointed out that the statistics were “not necessarily a positive economic indicator”.
As we report this week, Vince Cable, the business secretary, chose to focus on the same issue at the event.
The problem is that both were preaching to the choir, yet the calls for students to be removed from the net migration count - which have support from five parliamentary committees - have gone unheeded.
It’s a point that has been made repeatedly (not least in Times Higher Education): foreign students are, as Vince put it last week, “good for the country and good for universities”.
Boris came at the issue with his trademark humour, warning that with French universities set to teach courses in English, we would be as well to sort out the tangle we are in before the French “master our language” and steal away our share of the market.
He also re-emphasised the importance to university finances of the flow of students from abroad - while simultaneously poking fun at those opposed to the principle of students paying their way - with a tall tale about his days as an Oxford undergraduate.
When a “convocation of dons” decided not to award Baroness Thatcher - an alumna of Oxford - an honorary doctorate, he asked them why.
“This is a place of learning. How can we give her an honorary doctorate after what she has done?” they replied. “What has she done?” Boris asked. “She changed the law so that it was possible for higher education institutions to charge international students for a contribution to their study,” they said.
Oxford should not only award Thatcher a posthumous doctorate, Boris declared, it should also “name a college in honour of its greatest post- war benefactor as it rakes in the doubloons”.
The arguments have all been made, yet the government - led by a prime minister worried about the next election (and about Boris, too) - still thinks that reducing immigration will win more votes than protecting the innumerable benefits that international students bring.
Vince did not hide his exasperation: “All the evidence suggests the British public do not see students as immigrants, but nonetheless they have got caught up in this very torrid and emotional debate.”
Yet as long as David Cameron sees the likes of the UK Independence Party gaining ground, this policy debacle looks likely to continue.