Britain has one of the best higher education systems in the world. So what did Jo Johnson do to cheerlead us?

Professor Jo Wolff goes hunting for positive remarks from Jo Johnson about universities – and offers some advice to successor Sam Gyimah

‘Farewell unis and science’, tweeted Jo Johnson, channelling Private Eye’s E.J. Thribb. Academics were astonished by such an honest statement of government policy. Relief flooded in when it was realised that it was Johnson’s way of saying he had been moved on from his position in higher education to transport. The line continued ‘our greatest national asset & best thing about this country’.

What a shame he hadn’t done more to emphasise his admiration for the sector before. His successor Sam Gyimah has inherited what should be cushiest job in government. True, there are problems, most notably around student finance, but there is universal agreement that UK higher education is second only to the US. We have two of the world’s leading ‘brands’ in Oxford and Cambridge, rivalling Coca Cola. London is among the most powerful cities in the world for higher education, attracting international staff and students to an extent that outstrips all its major rivals. World-class research runs right through the system, to be found everywhere. And what did Jo Johnson do to cheerlead for us?

Well, excepting his final tweet, you have to look pretty hard. In early January, Dorothy Bishop, Oxford professor of developmental neuropsychology, noted that Johnson was surprisingly unsupportive of universities, dishing out much more criticism than praise. To test the hypothesis as scientifically as possible, consistent with spending no more than five minutes on the task, I googled ‘Jo Johnson universities’. Of course, there would be different results today, but at the time, it was pretty dismal.

There was a lot about the need to protect free speech on campus, alleged to be under attack. There were dark mutterings about university libraries supposedly censoring their collections. Then there was support for deeply troubled Toby Young. More subtly, there was an attack on those criticising the high pay of vice-chancellors, but suggesting that the system of remuneration as a whole needed attention, not just a few individual scapegoats (almost all of whom have been women, incidentally). Deep on page six of the search, some positives: a defence of the student fee regime, and praise for a private provider that had won a research grant.

Tough love?

It leaves a disappointing impression from a government that, one presumes, wishes to celebrate success. Perhaps it was intended as tough love, challenging us not to be complacent. But it looks more like the idea that the universities have got too big for their boots, and need to be taken down a peg or two. I completely accept we do have serious vulnerabilities. Among the things I worry about is the lack of progress in making all universities diverse, welcoming, inclusive places, equally respectful of all. I worry about job insecurity and casual contracts, and unequal pay and progression. And I worry about closing of borders, the long-term effect it could have on the recruitment of the best staff and students, and more, generally to energy levels in UK economy and society. I’d be very pleased to focus on any of this, but unfortunately attention is being diverted elsewhere.

So, farewell then, Jo Johnson, and perhaps you will get what you seek at the Department of Transport. And welcome Sam Gyimah. We hope you realise what a privilege it is to oversee higher education in the UK, and that you avoid two easily made mistakes. One is to assume that nothing has changed in higher education since you picked up your degree certificate. And the other is to suppose that what the sector really needs right now is a few sharp ministerial pronouncements.