Welcome to the hot seat, Mr Johnson

David Bell has some words of wisdom for Jo Johnson, the new minister for universities and science, as an ‘eventful’ five years loom

May 14, 2015

Source: Miles Cole

Ministers always win respect for being on top of their brief. The word soon gets back to Downing Street when someone is lazy and/or struggling

Dear Jo Johnson,

Congratulations on your appointment as minister for universities and science. You will be reflecting, I am sure, that politics is a brutal old business. Higher education added to the carnage: Clegg, Cable and co paid a heavy price for the most infamous broken promise in recent times.

As you will have realised, life as a minister starts immediately, with precious little notice and no training. As for an induction period, forget it. Remember, though, that the Civil Service is there to help you and provide wise counsel. It may not be the Rolls-Royce of legend, but it is still a well-oiled and reliable machine.

I experienced a number of machinery-of-government changes when I was a permanent secretary. Be thankful that the prime minister has not lumbered you with that bureaucratic distraction. Despite the apparent logic of a single education department, the costs and disruption just were not worth it. But it is worth getting close to your colleagues in the Department for Education as there are important crossover issues, such as A-level reform and apprenticeships.

There are echoes of 2010 in what happened this time round, with such an unexpected outcome. Few of us in 2010 thought a full Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition even possible. But the Civil Service is brilliant at briefing incoming ministers, whatever the notice.

Already, you will be working your way through folders of background papers which are worth coming back to as they won’t all make sense at first. In my experience, ministers always won respect for being on top of their brief. The word soon gets back to Downing Street when someone is lazy and/or struggling.

It also means being prepared to get away from Westminster to visit institutions of all types and sorts. Speak to academics, students, employers, parents. Use the sector as your engine room of fresh and innovative thinking.

Understand as much as you can about the glory that is UK research. Crucially, too, be open to challenge or criticism. It is the least we should expect from you as higher education minister.

In 2010, I had no shortage of ideas from Michael Gove when it came to schools. This time, I suspect your officials will have had a tougher job, with less of an obvious agenda for reform. However, you can make a great virtue out of consolidation. Remember that the first of the £9,000 generation of students have not yet graduated, and number controls are not fully lifted until this September.

It almost seems counter-intuitive when you start as a minister, but the grind of implementation, although much less glamorous than the glory of announcement, is what brings about real change. This is not an argument against any legislation. Indeed, it is probably overdue when it comes to clarifying the regulatory landscape. But the real test for you will come in avoiding what civil servants are fond of calling a “Christmas Tree Bill” – the one with endless adornments.

Of course, you will want to be seen to be “doing things”. That is not always possible when it comes to universities – something that has long been a source of frustration to ministers of all parties.

One interesting test will come in the debate on a “teaching REF”. It could expose those traditional tensions within your party between those of a libertarian bent and those who prefer more central direction. If my experience of schools reform was anything to go by, do not expect ideological consistency from your colleagues.

A big priority will be preparing for the next comprehensive spending review. The chancellor of the exchequer is an important ally. If you value your career, do not suggest a comparison with Gordon Brown. But, like him, George Osborne has been a science and research chancellor. His support will be crucial if the UK’s research base is to be protected.

The issue of tuition fees will not go away. Leaving aside the policy arguments, the politics look tricky after the defenestration of your erstwhile coalition partners. But the need to secure a stable, long-term funding settlement for higher education is an apolitical issue and one where you can make your mark in building a high degree of cross-party consensus.

Keeping control of your diary is tough. But it pays to be active and energetic across a range of government policies. On Europe, the higher education perspective needs to be brought to bear. In making the case for reform, universities can be a powerful and constructive voice. Likewise on immigration and, of course, Scotland.

A final thought. One of your distinguished – Tory – predecessors was William Waldegrave. When told that his appointment as higher education minister would involve being in charge of university cuts, he exclaimed: “That is a hot seat!”. Plus ça change?

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Reader's comments (2)

"But the need to secure a stable, long-term funding settlement for higher education is an apolitical issue and one where you can make your mark in building a high degree of cross-party consensus" Cross-party consensus sounds like motherhood and apple pie. Pure delusional as the third largest opposition party SNP does not care about RUK, as long as their free tuition is preserved by the Barnet Pott dosh, and mugging English students for £9000 tuition fee per year, As for Labour, they are in mourning and so called building their party and will be muttering about £6000 they suggested to lure student votes, not caring about the HE funding deficit.
... and mugging English students for £9000 tuition fee per year ...... do not forget we also 'mug' Welsh and Northern Irish - quite legally (at least no court has ruled against it yet) and do you actually know anything about the Barnett formula and why there are differentials?

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