Johnson faces cool reception

June 20, 2003

Prime minister Tony Blair reinforced his assault on ivory towers by appointing rising star Alan Johnson to succeed Margaret Hodge as higher education minister, it was said this week.

The choice of Mr Johnson, a non-graduate who was a leading trade unionist before his election to Parliament in 1997, signalled a renewed determination to tackle perceived elitism and conservatism in universities.

The prime minister's official spokesman said that one of Mr Johnson's main roles would be to open access to higher education. He rejected as "snobbish" any implication that Mr Johnson would be handicapped in his job because he did not have a university degree.

Geoffrey Copland, rector of Westminster University and chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities, said he hoped that Mr Johnson would bring a fresh perspective to the debate about the nature and diversity of the university sector.

Mr Johnson, a former postman whose Hull West and Hessle constituency incorporates part of the University of Lincoln, is described variously by former trade union and Westminster colleagues as "tough", "straight-talking", "a safe pair of hands", "sharp" and, rather less flatteringly, "lacking charisma".

But with a turbulent period ahead for higher education and the threat of a Labour backbench rebellion over forthcoming top-up fees legislation, toughness and an ability to get the job done may count for all.

A thick skin may also come in handy, for it is clear from comments made to The THES that some in higher education are critical of the appointment of a non-graduate who has little working experience of the sector.

Mr Johnson, who was a governor of Ruskin College, Oxford, "the working-man's university", from 1992-97, is one of five ministers, excluding peers and government whips, who do not list some higher or further education experience or qualifications in Dod's parliamentary guide to MPs.

Tom Wilson, head of universities for lecturers' union Natfhe, said he thought Mr Johnson would face "an avalanche" of snobbery. But one Westminster friend said that any snobbery would be water off a duck's back.

Most are waiting to see how quickly and thoroughly Mr Johnson masters his brief.

He faces an especially steep learning curve, with the looming top-up fee legislation added to proposals to further concentrate research funding in a handful of top universities. These controversial issues are set against the continuing expansion of higher education up to 2010.

There is a suspicion among academics that Mr Johnson was appointed primarily to push through the forthcoming legislation amid fears of a significant Labour rebellion.

His troubleshooting abilities are borne out by his rapid rise through the ranks since his election in 1997, including three years as a minister in the Department of Trade and Industry.

During this time, Mr Johnson, a former general secretary of the Communication Workers Union and general council member of the Trades Union Congress, clashed repeatedly with former union colleagues over the implementation of European employment legislation.

Relations hit a new low in April when Mr Johnson accused leftwing trade unionists of hailing from the "planet Zog".

But trade unionists inside and outside higher education now say that, although this made him very unpopular, he did earn respect for the way he handled what was clearly a tough assignment for anyone, let alone an inexperienced minister.

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