Jo Johnson warns Tories against university culture war

Former minister calls for ‘in trouble’ apprenticeship levy to be reformed into skills and ‘lifelong learning levy’

January 20, 2020
Source: Getty

The Conservatives should avoid “continuing a low-level culture war” against universities and seeking a “punitive” funding settlement in England in response to institutions’ pro-European Union stance, Jo Johnson has warned.

The former universities and science minister also said that the apprenticeship levy was “clearly in trouble as a policy”, calling for it to be reformed and reshaped into a “skills training and lifelong learning levy”.

Mr Johnson, who campaigned for Remain in the EU referendum, resigned from his brother Boris’ government in September, saying he had been “torn between family loyalty and the national interest”.

Mr Johnson lasted just six weeks in his second spell in the universities and science post. But in that time, he is thought to have fought hard to bury any chance of the Augar review’s recommendations to lower English tuition fees being implemented by the government – which he and universities fear would bring a major funding cut.

He told Times Higher Education: “The university sector was quite firmly camped on one side of the Brexit debate. I would hope there isn’t going to be a Carthaginian peace [one that seeks to crush the opposition] for the sector…I think it’s important that we recognise that the time for healing is upon us, and we’ve got to get behind our great universities to help them make a success of this idea of global Britain, which is so central to the Brexit project.”

He added that “we should try to avoid a peace settlement that is punitive for a sector that’s so crucial for Britain’s future” and “we should avoid continuing a sort of low-level culture war that was visible during the referendum campaign and [in post-referendum debate] over how and whether we were going to do Brexit”.

Was there still a chance the government might implement the Augar fee cut?

“I can’t see any reason why they would want to, to be honest,” replied Mr Johnson. “It’s a terrible policy and pretty incomprehensible politics at this juncture” following the Tory general election victory, he added.

He highlighted how the Augar review emerged in response to Theresa May’s concern that Labour's policy to abolish fees, set against the £9,000 fee regime introduced by the Conservatives, had been one of the factors that denied the Tories a majority at the 2017 election. Mr Johnson always rejected that analysis and opposed the creation of the review.

“You’ve got to remember the Augar review was produced by the Theresa May administration partly in order to try to find another reason for the disappointing performance in the 2017 election – other than the obvious one,” Mr Johnson said.

But following the Conservatives’ conclusive victory in the December 2019 election, “there’s no longer this need in No 10 to try and explain away an election result, because we’ve demonstrated again that the Conservative Party is quite capable of winning elections with a £9,000 or £9,250 fee policy”, he added.

Asked about other priorities he had worked on during his time back in the universities brief, Mr Johnson said: “I think it’s really vital that we look very carefully at the operation of the apprenticeship levy. It’s clearly in trouble as a policy – it’s losing the confidence of businesses and employers.”

He added: “I think there’s a very serious case for reforming the apprenticeship levy and making it more akin to a skills training and lifelong learning levy. At the moment, I think it’s really in need of a very substantial rethink. And I know Gavin Williamson [the education secretary] is the right person to lead that.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Jo Johnson: Tories should avoid culture war against universities

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