Addressing an audience of rather harried vice-chancellors at their annual conference is a tricky gig for a new universities minister, particularly when he comes with more than platitudes to deliver.
Ahead of Jo Johnson’s speech at the Universities UK meeting last week, there was a sense of anxiety about a relatively unknown political quantity with a known agenda on university teaching in particular.
Johnson isn’t as available as he should be, some muttered, and seems to already know the answers when an audience is granted.
Their nervousness was compounded, perhaps, by a suspicion that the business secretary, Sajid Javid, may prove to be a less benign presence than Vince Cable.
But what was most striking about Johnson’s speech – which covered plenty of ground – was how closely his agenda mapped to the contours of David Willetts’ tenure.
There was the flagship teaching excellence framework, which continues the campaign to put students “at the heart of the system”; he signalled full stream ahead on alternative providers, despite the high-profile problems that have dogged this attempt to inject competition and challenge the evils of “incumbency”; there was a doubling down on demands for efficiency (threatening something serious for the research councils and regulators); and warm words but little action on the standoff over international students and the net migration count.
The continuing unease about this last point was made clear in the days after the UUK gathering, with reports of renewed lobbying of the prime minister by cabinet ministers in favour of removing students from the count.
But, as in the last Parliament, the home secretary Theresa May remains an immovable object on the other side of the argument.
Johnson did not address the topic in his speech, but when asked later he seemed resigned to the intractability of the standoff.
Responding to a question from Times Higher Education, he spoke with great enthusiasm about the value of overseas students (although the general impression is that he is not a naturally garrulous politician, despite his surname).
“It’s pretty clear the value that international students bring, not just to our universities but to our country,” Johnson said. “They make viable courses that wouldn’t otherwise be viable, create a learning environment that’s stimulating, and network domestic home students with the wider world.”
So far, so good – and so Willettsian too.
Unfortunately his response to the follow-up question was equally familiar: would we see movement on the net migration count, which has already contributed to a slowdown in the growth of student numbers from India?
“As you know, they are outside the cap, there is no limit on international student numbers, so this is a bit of a theoretical debate,” Johnson replied.
So theoretical that no lesser figures than the chancellor, business secretary and foreign secretary are said to be asking David Cameron to overrule May?
The absurdity is that this is still a debate at all – as Johnson’s warm words make clear, the argument was won long ago. But the depressing politics surrounding immigration – hardened, perhaps, by the pitiful and entirely unconnected refugee crisis in Europe – continue to rule the day.