Ex-postie plans to deliver

September 12, 2003

Top-up fees are a tool for social justice insists new higher education minister Alan Johnson, who left school at 15. In his first major interview, he tells Alan Thomson how they will crowbar working-class kids into university.

Hand-picked by prime minister Tony Blair to take over from Margaret Hodge as higher education minister earlier this year, Alan Johnson has the unenviable task of piloting one of the most contentious pieces of Labour legislation, to introduce higher education top-up fees, through parliament.

After a summer mugging up on the complexities and idiosyncrasies of higher education funding, research and teaching, Mr Johnson this week faced his baptism of fire with a speech to vice-chancellors at the Universities UK annual conference.

Things will get hotter next week when he is due to fight the government's corner in a Commons debate on the highly critical education and skills select committee report on the higher education white paper that set out the top-up fee proposals. By the time the top-up fee legislation is introduced, expected to be November, Mr Johnson should be fighting fit.

He is under no illusions that top-up fees are a "huge" political issue: what he calls "red meat" politics that give the lie to claims that there is little difference between Labour and Conservative policies.

"People who say that now you can't tell the difference between the two main partiesI well, here we have a real issue. Do we expand higher education, do we widen participation, do we increase investment? Or do we contract higher education?" he said.

"I can't see any alternative (but to expand and invest). We are not going through this process because it's an easy argument and a quick fix or because it's focus-group politics. We are going through it because we are convinced we have a world-class higher-education sector. But if we don't act nowI it's going to be decline, disinvestment, contraction and we will lose our very important position in the world."

It is the language of stark choices, plain and visceral. It comes naturally from this former trade union boss when he is pressed to justify the government's stance on fees.

There is passion, particularly when defence turns to attack of Conservative higher-education proposals, but it is suppressed by the reserve of the seasoned negotiator, something learnt during a trade union career that saw him rise to general secretary of the Communication Workers' Union.

It is no secret in Westminster that Mr Blair chose Mr Johnson not simply for his negotiating prowess and ability to get the job done - his first job as minister saw him successfully implement European employment legislation - but for his working-class credentials, a precious commodity among government ministers.

The logic is that if Mr Johnson, who left school at 15 to become a postman, is convinced of the need for top-up fees and believes they will help widen participation by young people from backgrounds such as his, he will be a far more effective salesman for the policy than, say, Ms Hodge, a middle-class graduate of the prestigious London School of Economics.

Mr Johnson accepts this but is not one for flaunting those credentials. He reveals that he has far more in his armoury than the right background for the job when he sets out his initial negotiating position regarding the forthcoming legislation.

It is the kind of hard-nosed bargaining, beloved of both trade unionists and employers, that amounts to saying: "We are willing to negotiate, but only if you agree to all our main points first."

"GettingI agreement that we should expand higher education, that we need more money, that we need to act now, not in ten or 15 years, and that graduates should make a contributionI we are very interested in discussingI and listening to alternatives," he said.

"It's not a dialogue of the deaf. We are listening to colleagues and they are listening to us, and we need to look at what we can do to allay their concerns. But I think both sides have to be involved in the listening process.

"Where there is dogmatic opposition to graduates making any contribution or if people are saying that we oppose expansion of higher education, that we think more means worse - it is very difficult to think what we can do."

Mr Johnson says expansion, which will increase opportunities for poorer people to get a higher education, and fees are intertwined and the higher charges are necessary to pay for the extra student numbers and grants, scholarships and bursaries for the poorest students.

It is a subtle but crucial shift in emphasis since Mr Johnson took over the brief. Following the departure of Ms Hodge, there has been next to no mention of the extra £400,000 graduates are supposed to earn compared with non-graduates in their working careers. The former minister frequently used the earnings premium to justify higher fees.

Mr Johnson sells fees as nothing less than a tool of social justice and calls the ending of upfront fees and loan repayments linked to earnings a "good deal" for working-class and middle-class students and families alike.

"I think the whole package will crowbar these (working-class) kids into university," he said.

"Many of my colleagues say we do not want to pull up the ladder of free higher education that they used, but it wasI a rope ladder that was pushed down from time to time to pick up the odd working-class kid. What we are looking to do is get rid of that ladder and build a broad, permanent, substantial staircase."

Mr Johnson is dismissive of the Conservative policy of halting expansion, which, says the opposition, will allow for all tuition fees to be scrapped.

He is particularly irritated by the Conservative claim that the government is creating graduates at the expense of the skilled workers the economy really needs, such as plumbers.

"The argument that we need plumbers not graduates is an amazing, depressing and perverse argument. It's never the Tories' kids that are going to be the plumbers, incidentally. It's always someone else's," he said.

He is less sure of his ground on the other highly contentious issue in the white paper - whether academics have to be active researchers to be good university teachers. Fears are growing that many academics may be forced to quit research as funding is concentrated further in the top departments.

He said: "Obviously I'm not steeped in this. I need to understand why so many people have reacted as if we were tampering with the Ark of the Covenant.

"I can't see an inextricable link that says to have good teaching you must have good research. We don't want an argument with the sector where it's more a discussion about principle than hard facts. But we need to challenge the argument that we should do it this way because we have always done it this way. I think we are right to throw down the gauntlet and challenge these notions."

The weeks up to the start of the new parliamentary session, on October 14, will see Mr Johnson and his boss, education secretary Charles Clarke, persuading Labour MPs of the government's case. Mr Johnson jokes that colleagues will be diving for cover as soon as they see him.

But the initial signs are that Mr Johnson is far too adept at fixing things to allow them, and the government's top-up fee policy, to give him the slip so easily.

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