Last Thursday it was widely reported that Jo Johnson, the MP for Orpington and Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation spoke at a conference of University leaders. His comments were far ranging even though the media focused mostly on a section relating to the pay of Vice Chancellors and senior staff. He also commented on two critiques of the higher education sector, the first where some people argue that the state should pick up the entire bill for student funding. He was quick to dismiss this idea stating that “By sharing the costs between students and taxpayers and consequently putting ourselves in a position in which we could remove student number controls, we have in fact started to transform access.” He went on to say “if fees were abolished…..life chances would be irreparably damaged, social mobility thrown into reverse.” Whilst it was clear that the social mobility he was referring to was that of greater access to Universities, this Government has overseen a significant reduction in social mobility since the coalition came to power. To stand up in front an audience of academics and senior educational managers and make such a statement does seem to be a strange thing to do if one wants to retain Ministerial credibility. This speech was not made up on the spot, someone crafted these words for Mr Johnson!
The second analysis he rejected was what he referred to as a pessimistic point of view, an argument that less people should be encouraged to study at our Universities. He was not entirely dismissive of the whole argument stating “The pessimists’ desire to improve alternatives to university is laudable: indeed, it is a core goal of this government’s education policy. That’s why we have instituted the Apprenticeship Levy, which will raise £2.8 bn to fund 3 million apprentices over a five year period” This seems to be an area that whilst outside of Mr Johnsons personal remit, is something that the Government is currently struggling with. Last Monday Higher Education establishments such as Brighton Metropolitan College and Sussex Downs College were due to submit proposals as part of this arrangement. They had been set this task at the end of July. Yet ten days ago Mr Johnsons department made sudden change to the requirements and although they have given colleges four extra days to submit their plans, it is hardly an indication that the Government is in control of its own plans. If they do not resolve these problems, the plans for these apprenticeships will most certainly fail.
In introducing his challenge on the pay of senior staff, Mr Johnson reminded the people who he was about to criticise “It is of course true that many of our universities are large and complex organisations, requiring highly skilled individuals to run them effectively. Some will be competing for managerial talent in a global market. But it is important to remember that universities are generally still charities with a not for profit public service mission and that, when it comes to VC remuneration, finding the right benchmarks is essential.” It seems clear that Mr Johnson wants to have his cake and eat it. There is an obvious tension between the way the pay of teaching staff in our Universities is set by the Government and the fact that other elements of the same organisations are working as part of a free and open market. This mixed system was created by the Government and they must take responsibility for its problems, or change the system. If Mr Johnson believes that Universities should remain as part of the charitable sector, he should be careful about imposing controls from the state. The more Ministers take control, the more they risk losing the whole purpose of such organisations. This tension is something that the Government has helped to create. The truth is that within the charitable sector there are many educational charities that inhabit a very different world to the Universities, relying on small sums of money to continue and reaching out to people who may never have the confidence to attend a University. On the other hand one well known charity that receives a great deal of Government funding is the Wellcome Trust whose Chair of Trustees is an ex Government Minister. The Director is paid a similar sum as that paid to the highest paid University Vice Chancellor. If Jo Johnson is prepared to demand that Universities publish the details of people earning more than £100,000 and to fine the Institutions that pay staff more than £150,000 without justification, then what about the business world. There are a number of businesses in the UK in receipt of huge sums of Government Money for delivering services, why do they escape this level of scrutiny?