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Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, has no intention of stepping in and telling vice-chancellors how much they should be paid. In this interview he says “the relentless upward ratchet” in their pay must be ended, but rejects calls for a state-imposed cap on remuneration.

For by impinging on the autonomy of universities, which is one of the reasons for their success, this solution would be “worse than the problem”.

Johnson deplores the way individual vice-chancellors have been singled out for attack (notably – though he does not say so – by Lord Adonis): “We must not pillory hard-working academics. We really cannot do that. I think it’s awful the way individual vice-chancellors have been hounded.”

He believes the new Office for Students will be able to deal with the problem, by obliging universities to be open about rates of pay, “so we can see whether salary differentials are blowing out”, and getting them to give the reasons (if any) for paying more than £150,000 a year.

He also wants to see checks on the “utterly ludicrous” expansion in the awarding of first-class degrees. In 1994 (when Johnson left Balliol with a First – another unmentioned detail), Oxford awarded Firsts to seven per cent of its students, a figure which has now risen, almost unbelievably, to 31 per cent.

In coming days, Johnson will be announcing measures to promote two-year degree courses for those who want faster learning and less debt. He has also been hard at work trying to ensure that Brexit does not deter EU students and staff from coming to British universities.

In this interview, he recalls riding his bicycle into New Palace Yard during the terrorist attack on the Palace of Westminster in March, and shows total solidarity with two Johnsons – his older brother, Boris, and their father, Stanley – who adopt a more flamboyant approach to publicity than he does himself.

Johnson: “Look, on vice-chancellors’ pay we do need to put an end to the relentless upwards ratchet. There have been some institutions where we have seen some very rapid rates of increase in vice-chancellors’ pay, and I’ve been calling on the sector to show restraint and to be responsive to the concerns that have been raised.

“In some institutions, it’s not necessarily generalised, we have seen some particularly sharp increases. Where you have a system that’s effectively claiming autonomy, and asserting its right to be autonomous, it’s really important that self-regulation commands public consent, and is seen to be generating value for money.

“So fine, be autonomous, we want you to be autonomous, I don’t want to be chairing a giant remuneration committee of all of the universities in the country.

“Autonomy’s a really important principle, but it has to be earned, and the universities need to show that they’re being transparent and accountable in how they arrive at pay decisions.

“So what we’re doing as government is saying, ‘We respect that autonomy, but you’ve got to demonstrate to the new regulator, the Office for Students, which is coming into existence in 2018, that you’re transparent and accountable and that your governance practices, how your remuneration committees works, are fit for purpose and up to date.’

“So that means in concrete terms things like, have you got an independent chair of your remuneration committee, are you ensuring that your vice-chancellors aren’t conflicted when it comes to the setting of their own pay, are you being transparent in terms of publishing ratios of top pay within institutions to median levels of pay, so that we can see whether salary differentials are blowing out – can see whether the top people’s pay is growing at a far faster rate than average pay in an institution.

“So what the OfS is going to be doing is ensuring that transparency and accountability underpins this autonomy which the sector has and which is a core feature of why we have a successful higher education system in this country. It will also I hope be effecting a kind of rebenchmarking of some of the higher levels of pay that we’ve seen, because there have been some examples where pay is perplexingly high, and I want the OfS to be provided with a clear justification of exceptional levels of pay exceeding £150,000.

“So one of the things they will be asking for is disclosure of where pay above £100,000 is being offered to people. That will be published, not the names, but in bands, numbers of people earning above £100,000. And where individuals are being paid above £150,000, which is the benchmark we use in the quasi-public sector to denote a lot of money, the OfS will need to be provided with justification of how the remuneration committee arrived at that as a reasonable number.”

ConHome: “What proportion of vice-chancellors are getting above £150,000?”

Johnson: “A high proportion.”

ConHome: “Roughly what?”

Johnson: “Well over three-quarters.”

ConHome: “Well over three-quarters! Most of them have previously pursued academic careers within the university of which they become vice-chancellor?”

Johnson: “I can’t say whether that’s usually the case. It may well be, but I couldn’t say for certain.”

ConHome: “But compared to normal academic life, where a professor, no doubt it varies a lot, but…”

Johnson: “I think the key thing is that we get the right benchmarks for VC pay.”

ConHome: “Well what are the right benchmarks then?”

Johnson: “Well this is an interesting question. The OfS will be publishing some thoughts on this when it provides its guidance on its regulatory framework early next year.

“But I think the idea that we need to benchmark VC pay to pay in the private sector is wrong. I don’t think it’s the right comparison. And the reason for that is that while these are in some cases rather big undertakings, universities, and they may have a turnover in some cases of several hundred million pounds, more in the case of some Russell Group institutions, the vice-chancellors generally don’t have the same risk profile as private-sector businesses.

“They are to a great extent publicly funded, either directly in the form of grant funding for their research activities, or indirectly in the form of the tuition fee income that students bring with them from the government. There is no private-sector business to my knowledge that has a steady reliable stream of customers coming to it every year bearing vouchers from the Government worth £9,250.

“That significantly de-risks the vice-chancellor compared to his or her counterpart in the private sector. And with that lower level of risk comes to my mind an expectation of a lower level of reward.”

ConHome: “So you need to look at senior civil servants?”

Johnson: “All those sorts of measures. NHS trusts, senior civil servants, senior figures in our armed forces…”

ConHome: “Have you talked to Lord Adonis about this?”

Johnson: “Yes I have talked to Andrew about all these things. I mean Andrew wants us to take a power to cap vice-chancellor pay. Bang. I don’t want to do that, and the Government doesn’t want to do that, because that is a significant crossing of the line into territory which is best governed by universities themselves, in the spirit of autonomy.

“It’s one of those cases where the solution is worse than the problem. I do not want to be setting pay in our universities. It’s one of the great joys of this job that government does not have to micro-manage pay across all levels of our university system. They’re autonomous institutions and that is a key feature of why they’re so successful, as David Willetts [Universities Minister 2010-14] has pointed out.”

ConHome: “My eye was caught by a passage in Willetts’ new book, A University Education:

“Should the minister send a Christmas card to every vice-chancellor? That would mean keeping a database of all their contact details. But it was for HEFCE [Higher Education Funding Council for England] to deal directly with individual universities, acting as a barrier between them and Government. We did not want to drift into endless ministerial communications to universities, treating them like schools and hospitals. I decided against the Christmas card list.”

“Have you sent Christmas cards to the vice-chancellors?”

Johnson: “No I haven’t, but I don’t hesitate to call vice-chancellors, or if I want to speak to a vice-chancellor I certainly won’t feel the need to go through Universities UK in order to have a discussion with a vice-chancellor about a policy question or to seek his or her advice about something. I will quite happily pick up the phone and make a call, or go and visit them.

“So I think Andrew’s got that wrong. I think he’s really got that wrong. It would be a terrible, terrible mistake for us to start interfering in the university autonomy in that respect. The critical thing is to ensure that autonomy commands public consent, and that it is demonstrably generating value for money in how universities work.

“You know, I think for some people this has become too personalised. I don’t like the way we’ve seen personal attacks on vice-chancellors. I think this is a really bad development.

“We need to hold universities and their councils to account for how pay is set. We must not pillory hard-working academics. We really cannot do that. I think it’s awful the way individual vice-chancellors have been hounded. We’ve got to get the structures right rather than hound individuals. I don’t like the whole politics of envy, let’s hound the individual, let’s throw biscuits at them, all this stuff. I think that’s grotesque.”

ConHome: “Is there a problem with grade inflation? I noticed that at some universities, 30 or even 40 per cent of people are getting firsts now! That is utterly ludicrous.”

Johnson: “It is utterly ludicrous, and I’ve challenged the sector to put an end to grade inflation. It erodes the value of a hard-earned qualification. There is an argument it might be to some extent to do with higher levels of attainment by students, but I really struggle to believe that an Oxford grad today is attaining 300 per cent better than one in the early Nineties when I went through the system.”

ConHome: “And what percentage of Firsts was it then?”

Johnson: “Then it was about seven per cent.”

ConHome: “That’s quite enough. It should be something quite rare. Max Hastings was always very down on people with Firsts. He said they were hopeless. But then I think he left Oxford after a year, he wanted to get on with things.”

Johnson: “It is the worst thing that can ever happen. No, I think the crucial thing is that the sector takes responsibility for it and grapples with the problem.

“I’ve challenged the sector to develop agreed sector standards for what is a minimum standard for a Third, what is a minimum standard for a 2:2, what is a minimum standard for a 2:1 and what is a minimum standard for a First.

“The sector is going to come back to us within the next few months with some proposals.”

Johnson also wants to see two-year as well as three-year university courses: “The Office for Students, this new regulator which we’re creating, coming into being next year, has a clear remit to promote value for money for students…I do see significant value in removing some of the barriers to the provision of two-year degrees, because if you remove those barriers it’s potentially very interesting.

“Quicker route into work, faster pace of learning for those who want it, less debt. This is an area which we’re looking closely at and I will be bringing forward proposals in the coming days to remove the barriers to the provision of accelerated degrees.”

ConHome: “That horrible attack on Parliament, when the poor policeman got stabbed – were you the person who came in on the bike?”

Johnson: “Yes I was.”

ConHome: “Because I went to the window, to see what the hell was going on outside, and I saw you ride in, and the policeman was shouting…”

Johnson: “Yes, he bundled me off my bike very effectively.”

ConHome: “You moved at tremendous speed to that little hut by the barrier.”

Johnson: “I know. They were brilliant. I rode in on my bike, blissfully unaware, and then heard a commotion, and the officer bundled me off my bike and urged me to get under the desk of his security hut.

“And then we were rapidly moved out, because the car which had been crashed into the barriers on Westminster Bridge, they weren’t sure whether that had been fitted with an explosive device or not, and as that was just adjacent to the hut, we were then moved out of there into the main building.

“But they were absolutely brilliant. Meanwhile other MPs were performing much more heroic acts than me, such as Tobias Ellwood.

“It was a shocking event. You ride through those gates every day and you talk to the people on the gate every day. And they were undoubtedly showing no hesitation in putting your safety before their own.”

ConHome: “On Brexit, your old friend George Osborne seems to think we need to be like Norway in the single market or like Turkey in the customs union. What do you think?”

Johnson: “Well I think in some ways what divides the groups formerly known as Leavers and Remainers from each other is far smaller now than what divides both those groups, Leavers and Remainers, from those who saw the UK and Europe as a political joint project: the Tony Blair/Peter Mandelson generation of political leaders in this country.

“The differences between the former Leavers and the former Remainers are really about the nature of the new equilibrium that we’re going to need to find in our relations with the EU. They’re not about a totally different vision of the UK at the heart of Europe.

“Our science system is highly dependent on EU nationals. Seventeen per cent of academic staff across our unis come from the EU, and in some subject areas a far higher proportion.”

ConHome: “How confident are you that this is not going to be wrecked by Brexit?”

Johnson: “Well look, I think we’ve got to ensure that our universities continue to flourish. They’ve been around for hundreds of years, our big universities…”

ConHome: “They’ve been international for hundreds of years as well…”

Johnson: “…and European centres of scholarship long before many EU member states even existed. So the idea that the world is going to collapse if we change our relationship to the EU and move from one bit of an outer core to another bit of an outer core is simply ridiculous.”

ConHome: “So are you managing to reassure the universities themselves?”

Johnson: “Our goal is to provide as much certainty as we can. On the student side, we’ve made clear that EU students will continue to be able to come here and have access to home-fee status if they start their studies in 2018/19.

“So if you’re from France and you want to come and study at Oxford or Liverpool or wherever, you can come in the academic year starting September 2018 and you’ll have access to home fee status for the full three years.

“So you’ll pay English fees for the full duration of your course of studies, but you’ll have access to our student loan book, which enables you to take on a loan to do so. That’s the existing system.

“We hope that that will see continued flows of EU students during this transition period. And we haven’t seen EU student numbers collapse during this transition period, which is really good. So applications were down five per cent for this year, for 17/18, but acceptances were only down two per cent.

“So the net result is that notwithstanding all the kerfuffle over Brexit, we’ve actually seen very limited impact on EU student numbers.”

ConHome: “I saw you did a tweet the other day that the number of students from India, after declining for about five years, has started to go up again.”

Johnson: “Yes, it’s great news. It’s one of the great sadnesses to me, as someone who’s spent a lot of time in India, and has worked hard on developing ideas on how we can reconnect with India, to have seen that sharp fall in student numbers from 2010. It is now starting to rise. And we want to see more international students generally come to the UK.”

ConHome: “Are they going to go on being classified as immigrants?”

Johnson: “Well that is an ONS [Office for National Statistics] definition, that they’re classified as migrants. That’s really one for the ONS to take a view on.”

ConHome: “But there was a row, surely, within the Government about this?”

Johnson: “I think the key thing is that the Government has an agreed position, which is that we’re not going to cap the number of international students that come here. So in some ways this is a bit of a red herring as a debate.

“What is critical is that we send out the right positive message around the world. Because this is an unbelievably promising export sector. In 2014 we were generating £19 billion of education exports, 60 per cent of which came from universities taking international students.

‘I’m really pleased that in the Budget there were a number of steps taken to improve our offer, including allowing students who graduate to go straight into post-graduate work and not have to wait, as they somewhat ridiculously had to do, until they receive their graduation certificate a few months later.”

ConHome: “Your father is on I’m A Celebrity…”

Johnson: “I’m glued to it.”

ConHome: “What’s it like?”

Johnson: “Oh I think he’s doing tremendously. He’s down to the last eight or nine [the interview was conducted on Wednesday morning, before Stanley had been voted out]. I’m very proud of him. I follow the comings and goings in the camp on a nightly basis with my kids. We are absolutely glued to it. Yeah, I think he’s doing wonderfully. We had no idea at all that he was doing it until he landed in Brisbane or wherever it is. He was following the strict ‘No no surprises rule’.”

ConHome: “And what’s it like being one of Boris’s younger brothers? As your father once described him, ‘Boris, that great prodigious tree in the rainforest, in the shade of which the smaller trees must either perish or struggle to find their own place in the sun.’”

Johnson [after a short pause, a light laugh]: “He’s doing a fantastic job, giving life to Brexit and leading our foreign policy, and he’s terrifically supportive in every way. So I think he’s got a huge weight of responsibility on his shoulders, and I think being Foreign Secretary at this time and having led the fight over Brexit…”

ConHome: “I can’t remember on what occasion he said Conservatives don’t behave like the Miliband brothers.”

Johnson [pained]: “No! The idea!”

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