Rumpled and ready to rumble

January 27, 2006

If higher education is to raise its profile, celebrity Tory Boris Johnson could be the man to do it. And he is already putting financial freedom for universities in the spotlight, writes Anna Fazackerley

Boris Johnson is not known for his discretion. As he gets into his stride in his new post as Shadow Higher Education Minister - his second chance on the front bench - doubtless many Labour politicians are gleefully awaiting his first public gaffe.

But Mr Johnson's willingness to make some noise about universities - at a time when they have all but disappeared from the political agenda - is already winning him important friends in the sector.

"Why is higher education being ignored?" he demands, ruffling the already studiously rumpled hair and looking genuinely perplexed. It isn't simply that he thinks there is life after the top-up fees debate - though he is adamant that there remains "an awful lot of stuff to be done".

He is also passionate about the central role that universities play in society.

"Universities have been central to the postwar development in this country; to the advance of the middle class," announces the old Etonian. "It is a university education that helps to define people as being professionals, aspirant, on the up."

This sort of fighting talk has gone down well with some of the people he has met in his first few weeks in the job. An insider at Universities UK reports that the group's chief executive, Baroness Warwick, was seriously impressed with Mr Johnson at a recent meeting. No mean feat considering she is a Labour peer.

"There is a lot of common ground between me and UUK," Mr Johnson says firmly. "They do a great job of trumpeting British universities. That is what I plan to do."

Although he is trying hard not to articulate Conservative policy on higher education before he has got the measure of what is going on, Mr Johnson clearly has some strong personal views.

He admits that he has always been in favour of top-up fees, even though his party fought the last election on an anti-top-up fee card. He is visibly relieved that David Cameron, the new Conservative leader, has reversed that policy. "In the course of moving to expand higher education, the slices of the pie have got smaller - universities have to get more money in," he explains.

He does not believe that the extra money should come from taxpayers, pointing out with some self-mockery that "it is inequitable that the hospital porter should be paying taxes for Etonians to have a free higher education".

Instead he argues that it is "inevitable" that the student must be made to pay.

But like most vice-chancellors, he is under no illusions about the impact that the advent of top-up fees will have in September, given the £3,000 cap. "When top-up fees come on stream, it will make very little difference financially," he says. He explains: "It is wrong in principle for the Government to forbid universities, which used to be completely independent, from deciding their own funding arrangements provided that they are not discriminatory against people from underprivileged backgrounds."

In his Westminster office, Mr Johnson cuts an almost academic figure, wearing a suit that may well have been slept in, and with his shirt hanging out of the back. But those who cling to the stereotype of him as the bumbling buffoon underestimate both his sharp mind and his ambition.

Since being given his job just before Christmas, Mr Johnson has been reading furiously every book and pamphlet about higher education that he can lay his hands on - UUK remarked with amazement that he had obviously digested the large pile of paper that it had sent him in the post - and he is keen to devour more. His diary is stuffed full of higher education meetings, and he hopes to have talked to most of the UK's vice-chancellors before too long.

He reels off the exact numbers of universities, courses and students in the UK at high speed, announcing triumphantly: "I'm going to paralyse you with statistics!"

It is as if he is half expecting to find himself in an impromptu exam on the state of the sector. He may be new, but he would probably pass.

As one who studied classics at Oxford University, Mr Johnson is careful not to fall into the more obvious public relations traps when talking about his vision of higher education.

"When it comes to surfing science and Yorkshire studies, I'm very reluctant to see the state move in," he says, with just a hint of amusement. "It is conventional for people like me to launch a jihad against media studies courses. But the fact is, media studies graduates get very well-paid jobs."

Although Mr Johnson talks a lot about the importance of widening participation, he describes the Government's 50 per cent target as "mad".

He explains: "I wouldn't dream of having a numerical target. It's crazy to chivvy people into university when they are not suited to it."

He also labours the point that politicians should not interfere in the running of universities. "I would like to see much more academic freedom,"

he says, more than once. And he admits that this freedom might well extend to some universities going private in the future.

"We're a long way from the Ivy League, though that's probably the way things will evolve," he says.

"The brute fact is that if universities rely for ever on the Treasury, it will strangle the development of higher education. Maybe these places shouldn't be endlessly relying on Uncle Sugar."

When he was appointed Shadow Minister for Higher Education by his friend Mr Cameron, he was quick to point out that it would be a very tough job. He maintains that this is the case, but his excitement about the challenge is obvious.

So what can we next expect to see discussed on Boris's blog? "We're going to back (Education Minister) Lord Adonis," he says with delight. "He needs to be protected from the ravening Labour mob."

It is clear that those expecting controversy will not have long to wait.

Mr Johnson has arrived. Let the show begin.

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