Jo Johnson looks set for a move away from the universities minister post in any Conservative government that follows the UK's general election, with suggestions that the battle over overseas students’ inclusion in the net migration target may have brought him disfavour from No 10.
If a Conservative government were to be the outcome of the 8 June poll, the size of any majority would dictate the nature of the expected post-election reshuffle: whether it promoted loyalists of Prime Minister Theresa May or sought to achieve more of a cross-party balance.
Either way, Tory ministers in the Department for Education would likely have control of an agenda with huge implications for universities, including the “major review” of tertiary education funding promised in the Conservative manifesto, which is seen as possibly heralding a shift of funding away from higher education towards priority areas in technical and further education. Ministers’ stances on overseas students would also be important, given Ms May’s restated commitment to include them in the drive to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”.
James Brokenshire, latterly the Northern Ireland secretary, is said to be under consideration by Ms May as a potential education secretary.
Regarded as one of Ms May’s loyalists, he would have the key responsibility of steering through her manifesto commitment to allow the creation of new grammar schools. As a former immigration minister, Mr Brokenshire would be likely to echo her policy stance on overseas students – and to ensure that other ministers in the Department for Education did the same.
As immigration minister, Mr Brokenshire said that it was a “ludicrous fiction” to suggest that the government’s drive to reduce net migration was “reducing the attractiveness of our world-class universities”.
Liz Truss, the justice secretary, is another potential candidate to become education secretary, according to reports.
As universities and science minister, Mr Johnson is thought to have opposed some Home Office attempts to further tighten the regime for overseas students, including a consultation on plans to differentiate the student visa regime according to “quality” of institution, which was promised by home secretary Amber Rudd at the Tory conference in October 2016 but has not materialised.
Mr Johnson is said to have bid farewell to civil servants at the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Ms May is thought to have been angered by the amendment inserted into the Higher Education and Research Bill by the House of Lords that called for students to be removed from the net migration target and by a resulting Times front-page story on 20 April. That story, headlined “May forced to weaken key target on migrants”, suggested that she was “ready to soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”.
In reality, the government threw out the overseas student amendment. The line addressing this issue in the Conservative manifesto is thought to have been inserted as a direct response to the Lords and the coverage of their amendment: “Overseas students will remain in the immigration statistics…and within scope of the government’s policy to reduce annual net migration.”
Some in the sector report that Ms May or those around her perceived that Mr Johnson had somehow been lax in allowing the Lords to generate difficult headlines on the issue, and they suggest that, while Mr Johnson had been destined for an upward move in any new Conservative government, that might now be in doubt.
However, others believe that the emphasis is more on the approval Mr Johnson gained from No 10 after successfully steering through the bill against some fierce opposition.