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The Johnson brothers set sail: ' It’s Déjà vu all over again'

The title is from a well-known quotation of the late US baseball player and coach, Lawrence Peter (Yogi) Berra. As far as universities are concerned, it appears that everything has come full circle and we slip back to enter another dimension. This time with Brexit sinking in the background. We ask what this might mean in promoting fairness and access to our universities. Or what it means for funding and the debt burden on students. The answer is likely to be ‘nothing changes’.

The new administration formed by Boris Johnson this week has been hailed as a bold and radical ‘changing of the guard’ in some quarters. Its crude objective was to kick out most of those opposed to Brexit, or even a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and replace them with a ‘come what may’ team of supporters. But beneath the choppy waters there are many less obvious dangerous currents and forces hiding. The consolidation of power in the hands of a few Johnson supporters will horrify many. The government has sailed a long way from the tenuous mandate of May and is taking all of the passengers and crew into uncharted waters without a rudder, compass or charts. The notion that there must be a better place to land and explore led Europeans to set out to cross the Atlantic as an act of faith. The worse they expected was to end up back at the same place. This time the reality might be that we find a worse place or even sink on the way. Our ambitious leaders might want to consider Berra’s observation that "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." Reality will always prevail in practice.

Seamless political leadership for universities: Meet the new boss.

This is where the wit and wisdom of Berra comes into the equation. A former student from Eton and Modern History graduate from Balliol College, Oxford University, Jo Johnson, has replaced Chris Skidmore, independent grammar school and modern History Graduate from Christ Church College, Oxford University. In the light of the educational similarities, one might expect no change in approach and this may indeed be the case. Skidmore’s predecessor was Sam Gyimah, educated at a state funded academy school and PPE graduate of Somerville College, Oxford University. It is hard to see how a new perspective on universities could have emerged over recent times.

Yet Johnson was the architect of the current regulatory regime and political control. Now, he is the architect returning to try to live in the environment he designed and constructed. He oversaw the introduction of the controversial Higher Education and Research Act 2017. There was a radical change in how universities in England were regulated with the introduction of the Office for Students (OfS). This general approach has also extended to the rest of the UK. Now Johnson must see if the OfS he created is functioning as intended. He, and those he chooses to be around him, might not like what they see. I would expect a shake-up.

What about Augar?

It seems that it is likely to become a thing of the past. With May out of the scene, it will become a modern historical aberration that will no doubt be ignored as something of little consequence. But we might have to rethink this. A new Labour, Liberal Democrat or coalition government is more likely to seize upon many of its elements and rejuvenate it. It may seem dead but it is in fact sleeping. The spending review is looming fast and the easy way out for the current PM would be to maintain the status quo. For the Johnson government, it may be a case of letting sleeping dogs lie.

One of the last acts of Skidmore was to face serious questioning from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee last month. Their aim was see if he was “aware of the potential issues for universities if the recommendations of the Augar Review are implemented and what the Government is doing to support the research community.” His responses revealed considerable resistance to the Augar recommendations: “I am under no illusion as to the economic consequences that a reduction in fee level would have, taking £1.8 billion out of the higher education system, and, speaking personally, there would have to be a top-up enacted for that to be prevented.” The inexorable reduction in the baseline research funding, or QR, arising from the REF exercises was probed and produced the answer: “that we try to redress that balance of a decline in QR funding”. You can see the encounter on Parliament TV or read the transcript at ‘Research Funding in Universities’ on the committee’s web site.

This is important since it is unlikely that Jo Johnson will depart from these notions. He has been a fierce critic of Augar from the outset. He resigned from his position as the then Minister for Universities and Science in January 2018 when the review was announced by former PM, Theresa May. This coincided with Justine Greening resigning from the government and her position as the Education Secretary. It later emerged that she had been advancing the idea of a ‘no fees’ regime (see TEFS 25th January 2019 ‘Entering the Lion’s Den: Can the Conservative establishment be tamed?’). The establishment had closed ranks with Oxford graduate Damian Hinds the new  front man.

Brexit and the universities.

After his first stint as University and Science Minister at the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Jo Johnson moved to the Transport Ministry. However, as the Brexit negotiations unravelled, he also resigned from that position in November 2018. On his evolving realisation that the choice might be between the 'Theresa May deal' and ‘no deal’ he was quoted as saying that, “To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes, vassalage and chaos, is a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis.”

Unlike his brother Boris, he has supported a new referendum since then. It is also apparent that he opposes Brexit. Music to the ears of universities, but in the current climate it is going to be ineffective since a ‘no deal Brexit’ looks the most likely outcome in October. The only light to be seen in the dense forest of government confusion is the plan to lift the existing cap on immigrants. This may attract more students who plan to stay in the UK to work. However, a stringent points-based system may emerge and take the gloss 
off the expectation.

What now of Social Mobility?

If the recent implosions of the government's flagship ‘Social Mobility Commission’ (SMC) are anything to go by, then it seems that it will be filed along with Augar (see TEFS 28th June 2019 ‘Social Mobility Commission boarding up the windows’). Yet the new education secretary, Gavin Williamson, comprehensive school educated and a social science graduate from Bradford University, would seem to be a world apart from his Oxford educated predecessor Damian Hinds. Unless he has ‘gone native’, he is more likely to follow in the footsteps of Justine Greening. One of his first tasks will be to look again at the SMC and seek to turn it around. However, with all hands to the pumps on a sinking Brexit ship, this may not be possible. He will also find himself surrounded by a majority of privately educated colleagues.

The Sutton trust has researched the background of each of them and produced a full list. The two Oxbridge Universities provide 45% and 65% attended private schools. This does not quite match the 100% that made up the Eden government in 1955 or the 91% appointed under Thatcher in 1979. By stark contrast, only 25% went to private school in the radical government of Attlee in 1945 and 32% under Blair in 1997. The sharp swings in the backgrounds of those that lead us over the years has been alarming and no doubt fuels a sense of uncertainty. Yet the pendulum swings regardless and change must be in the air. We will have to deploy the full range of talent and ability to face the problems that will arise. Empty rhetoric on social mobility will not be enough for any government.

Scientific blindness and the challenges that lie ahead.

Whilst there would seem to be even more social myopia at the heart of our government, the science blindness may be even greater. But even the most entrenched history dons at Oxford might have noticed the record-breaking temperatures this week. The irony of Johnson forming a government on the day temperature records tumbled across Europe will not have escaped the attention of all scientists. Oxford reached a high of 36.6 degrees C and Cambridge hit the all-time UK July record at 38.1 degrees C. That these events are down to human-made global warming is now beyond any doubt. Yet the new government was formed yesterday with only a single minister who is a scientist. International Development Secretary, Alok Sharma, has a degree in Applied Physics from Salford University. See also the helpful overview this week by the Higher Education Policy Institute ‘Where and what did the new Cabinet study?’. The technical challenges of global warming are immense, yet most of the government have little grasp of the imperatives or indeed the Laws of Thermodynamics. The two culture dilemma presented by Charles (C P) Snow in 1959 in a Rede Lecture persists today and presents the biggest danger to our futures (see TEFS September 28, 2018).

It is clear that we need to act quickly. The answers will not emerge from a scientifically blind government. They will only emerge from hard won technical advances. This will take the actions of all of our talented people supported through a fair and open education system.

To finish on a sporting theme, the late Bill Shankly always had a view on taking the initiative. It works when there is a pressing need to succeed. But you do need to know the rules first: “If you get to the edge of the penalty area with the ball and don't know what to do next, just stick the ball in the net for now. We can evaluate the other options later”.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics


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