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JOHNSON Jo

While his brother is peering through the mists of history at Adolf Hitler, Jo Johnson is wading through swamps of jargon towards the future.  New high quality providers…a teaching excellence framework…innovative provision…quality assurance: yes – it can only be proposals for university reform.  There was a Green Paper, which this site previously consideredNow there is to be a White Paper – and, according to yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, a bill for the Queen’s Speech.  Boris is never very far from front of stage, but his brother is briefly to have his name in lights too – before vanishing into the darkness of committee, as he steers his bill through the Commons.

Johnson’s plans fall into three main parts.  First, he wants to bust restrictive practices, as he sees them, wide open.  That a new university must obtain validation from other universities is, as he put it last summer, “akin to Byron Burger having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant”.  He proposes to break this closed shop wide open.  Famous institutions abroad, such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and rather newer arrivals, such as Facebook and Google – all these could have degree-awarding powers for courses run in Britain.

Second, the Universities Minister wants students themselves to drive change, through a Steve Hilton-type accountability and transparency revolution.  Institutions must publish, publish, publish: information about the jobs its graduates get, their average earnings after graduation, how much time they spend in classes.  There is to be a new Office for Students, which will oversee the workings of the system.  And there will also be the Teaching Excellence Framework, to uphold standards.  It will be easier to switch courses.  Inspection will be reformed.  There will be more two year degrees, more degree apprenticeships, more provision that involves employers.  Universities deemed successful will be able to raise their tuition fees above £9000 from 2017.

Third, that information will include the gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background of Universities’ students: Ucas, the university admissions service, will publish it.  This will be a means of cranking up the sector to admit more.  The Prime Minister takes a lively interest in the matter, stating earlier this year that “if you’re a young black man, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university”.  Those who take a lively interest in statistics – or in truth more broadly – may have seen this claim exploded by Fraser Nelson, who revealed that if you’re a young black man, you’re at least twice as likely to be in a top University as prison (using Cameron’s methodology, at any rate).

At this point, it is worth standing back from Johnson’s plans, and looking more widely at the current state of the sector.  There has been an explosion of student numbers: last year, over half a million entered the system, the highest number ever recorded.  They pay more than previous generations did, stumping up for tuition fees – but there is little sign of the competitive and innovative education market that we were promised, with more higher education institutions charging the maximum fee.  Government also spends more, subsiding the loans system to the point that, for some students, it turns out not to be such a system at all.

But all the while, employers complain that many graduates are not up to the job.  It rather depends which ones.  According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, there are no fewer than 23 universities whose average male graduate earns less than those who had not been to university at all.  This suggests either that, as the ConservativeHome Manifesto argued, the sector is too big (we made the case for a shift of resources to vocational education) or that other institutions could do better.  Hence Johnson’s determination to open up a relatively closed system.  He will know that if more would-be students had better information about future earnings they might not go to University at all.

There is a free market critique of Johnson’s proposals – namely, that deciding which Universities can raise fees on the basis of bureaucratic inspection is lumbering and unwiedly.  According to this view, set out on this site by Peter Ainsworth, Universities can more simply be measured on earnings value added.  The Universities Minister might counter that this plans will make that information available.  This raises a bigger question still: is it really the function of a University to churn out graduates for industry, rather than teach to broaden minds and develop people?

For better or worse, it was answered long ago – at roughly the time when the University Grant Committee was set up in 1919.  If the state is to pay the piper, it will call the tune, which means getting a tangible, material return on its investment.  This morning, Chris Patten warns that any attempt to enforce ethnic or other quotas will endanger standards, saying that “if you want high class universities you should expect them to lower their standards in order to make up for some inadequacies in our secondary education system…nobody will explain  to me how you can make a system of quotas work while retaining the highest admissions standards”.

He thus makes a point briefly that the Fair Access to University Group of MPs made at more length in its manifesto – namely, that barriers to social justice, when it comes to university access, are less likely to be thrown up by racist dons (it is rather easier to find politically correct dons) than bad schools and low expectations.  Johnson will know this perfectly well.  One may hold that his ideas lean too heavily on state inspection.  But he is certainly not lounging on his oars.  Unlike some ministers, he is striving to drive change.  He wants to see a wind of change gust through a secretive system.  More than one Johnson brother is knocking on the doors of Cabinet to seek admission.

34 comments for: Jo Johnson moves to open up a closed University system

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