University scepticism has replaced Euroscepticism in the Conservative party, Jo Johnson said today – but the former Tory MP warned that frustration with the higher education sector was a broader phenomenon and should not be “simply dismissed”.
Mr Johnson, who served as universities minister from 2015 to 2018 and again in 2019, said the government led by his brother Boris Johnson is “clearly signalling through recent speeches and rhetoric a desire to stop the growth of the sector”.
He told an audience of key sector figures at the Fifth Festival of Higher Education: “There is a lot of HE scepticism; I think it is the new Euroscepticism on the Conservative benches.
“There is a concern that’s been maintained for some time that the sector has over-expanded and that quality has not necessarily kept pace with that expansion. And, as a consequence, we’re seeing rising concern about value for money.”
Mr Johnson said that the Conservative governments he served in under David Cameron and Theresa May were “agnostic” on the expansion of higher education and favoured a sector that could “wax and wane” as student and employer demand fluctuated.
I’ve got little doubt that if any particular institution was really facing extreme financial stress that the Treasury in combination with the Department for Education and the Office for Students would be able to put in place a package of measures to ensure there was no disorderly failure
– Jo Johnson
But the former cabinet-insider warned sector bigwigs: “I think it’d be easy to say that this is just Conservative scepticism about HE. I think, sadly, the sector needs to recognise that this frustration is broader than that and that it’s not just the usual suspects; it’s not just the same people who campaigned for Brexit who are concerned about the expansion of HE.
“[The debate does not separate] along familiar dividing lines that we see on many different issues. It’s actually more worrying than that for the sector. That’s why it’s important that concerns about value for money aren’t simply dismissed as coming from predictable quarters. I think the sector really does need to embrace accountability and recognise that there are some serious issues underpinning this critique.”
At the end of the live question and answers session, Mr Johnson said he did not think the government would allow universities to go bust. He described the £140m fund that a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicted would be needed to shore up the most at-risk universities as “chicken feed” for the Treasury.
“I’ve got little doubt that if any particular institution was really facing extreme financial stress that the Treasury in combination with the Department for Education and the Office for Students would be able to put in place a package of measures to ensure there was no disorderly failure,” he explained.
The ex-minister predicted that the student number caps introduced by the government during the Covid-19 pandemic would become a lasting feature of the UK HE landscape for years to come: “I would bet almost any money the student number controls that are in place this year, will be in place again next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.”
Mr Johnson said the HE sector had scored a “spectacular own goal” when Universities UK (UUK) suggested a temporary student number cap in its request for a sector bailout. The student number cap would “not achieve its ostensible objective” of stabilising admissions because individual institutional limits are set too high, he explained.
I cannot see this government deciding to free up places in those sectors, they’re very much in the crosshairs. And I can see all additional funding allocated through additional places being steered towards the STEM subjects
– Jo Johnson
English universities are required to limit recruitment from September to their own forecasted figures for the 2020/21 academic year, plus 5%. Universities in the devolved nations will not be able to increase their intake of English students by more than 6.5%
“[UUK has] given the government exactly the tools which higher education sceptics would like to have to limit the future growth of the sector in coming years. All the government now needs to do is to say, well, we’re still dealing with the aftermath of Covid-19: we still need to continue the stabilisation package.”
He also predicted that the creative arts, arts and humanities and social science disciplines would lose out: “I cannot see this government deciding to free up places in those sectors, they’re very much in the crosshairs. And I can see all additional funding allocated through additional places being steered towards the STEM subjects.”
Although the former frontbencher said he did not have an ideal “size in mind for the HE sector”, he added: “If we want to be competitive as a knowledge economy, we need to skill up in all levels. There is no evidence that I’ve seen whatsoever that there’s a shortcut to higher national productivity that comes from de-skilling and having fewer people educated to a high level.”
He added that his biggest regret from his time in government was the “catastrophic” decline in mature and part-time student numbers. “If I were to make one specific change to [the student funding system], I would recognise the catastrophic fall in part-time and adult participation in higher education and join others in recognising that it’s time to bring in changes to address that.”
The prime minister last week questioned the value of many university degree courses. “We have umpteen fantastic, globally outstanding universities and yet too many degree courses are not now delivering value,” Boris Johnson said on Monday 30 June.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan echoed the prime minister’s statement two days later in a speech to the NEON summit. Ms Donelan said: “For decades we have been recruiting too many young people on to courses that do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals”.
“Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of – particularly those without a family history of going to university. Instead, some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense,” she added.
Jo Johnson said today any judgments made on course value should be informed “in a very holistic way” and not “through a narrow prism of graduate earnings”.
During his time at the Department for Education and the development of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), Mr Johnson said he was keen to focus on contextualising the success of a course, rather than longitudinal educational outcomes (LEO) data, which he said he “didn’t really pay much attention to”. Jo Johnson