What does Boris Johnson really think about FE?

A speech the new PM gave in 2006 as shadow higher education minister gives us a pretty good idea, writes Tom Richmond

Speaking in 2006, Boris Johnson acknowledged the need for 'parity of esteem' between vocational and academic courses

Over the past few days, new prime minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly stressed the importance of colleges and called FE funding a government "priority".

This has raised a few eyebrows. After all, it’s not a topic that Mr Johnson – or indeed, other high-profile politicians – have paid much attention to in recent years. 

Now that Mr Johnson has entered 10 Downing Street, we’re all left wondering whether or not he will put his money where his mouth is and provide more funding and support for FE – particularly when schools and HE are also demanding a better financial settlement from the Treasury.

It is not widely known that David Cameron appointed him as shadow higher education minister in 2005. When Mr Johnson gave a major speech on "the future of HE" in 2006, he inevitably focused on debates in the HE sector such as tuition fees. Even so, the speech contained some clues about what Boris Johnson in Number 10 might mean for FE colleges around the country.


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Academic vs vocational education

The speech began with snippets of Mr Johnson's own university experience, such as his “lifelong knack of sleeping through lectures”, but soon moved on to more important insights. He recognised that “there is huge scepticism about whether [so many] students need to be at university, and a general belief that many of the courses they are doing are a waste of time, or worse”. 

He even admitted that it was almost a pastime for journalists “to attack media studies, or golf course management, or surf studies, or equine management: in fact, I have a feeling I may once have written something on those lines”. Mr Johnson wryly stated that “in the words of every saloon-bar analysis of higher education of the last 10 years, what we need is fewer graduates, and more plumbers”.

He also lamented that “for generations, the British ruling classes have tried to persuade young people that there is ‘parity of esteem’ between academic and vocational courses”. The reason why he was so vexed about this was that “every time we try to pretend that vocational qualifications are just as good as academic ones …the maddeningly self-interested young people of today tell us to pull the other one”. Supporters of T levels, and the ministers who continue to insist that they are the "gold standard" even though they don’t exist yet, should take note.

Mr Johnson rejected the notion of trying to “stop expanding student numbers and to scrap a raft of unspecified Mickey Mouse degrees” as he thought that people should be allowed to “gamble that we, or our children, will be transformed by the university experience, just as we are willing to gamble on the lottery”. This was based on his belief that “universities are brands and people need to have the imprimatur of the brand, and there is simply nothing we can do to persuade them otherwise”.

The Augar review

This might disappoint any supporters of the Augar review of post-18 education, who assert that some university degrees should not receive public funding as they do little to boost the prospects of graduates in terms of earnings and employment. This disappointment might be compounded by Mr Johnson's view that “I certainly don't believe in some mad plan to try to compel a certain proportion of people to stick to vocational courses and thereby reduce university numbers”. To illustrate the point, he stated that “it's no use saying to people – it's all right, sonny, you can be a stonemason, or you can pack my bags at the supermarket checkout while I go off and be a lawyer”.

Although Mr Johnson was firmly against the idea of a government target of 50 per cent of young people attending university, he remained convinced that “the reason the numbers taking A-level and university entrance have continued to rise is less to do with government policy than with that ancient, noble and ineradicable British lust – the desire to keep up with the Joneses”. This highlights the scale of the challenge facing FE, even if it delivers better economic returns than HE.

There were several more positive remarks for the FE sector in Mr Johnson's speech. First, he expressed his desire for government to ensure that “students have the knowledge to make the most informed choices about what is best for them”, which can only be a good thing. What’s more, he declared a strong commitment to ensuring that “if [young people] decide not to go to university, for whatever reason – and, of course t,here will be many brilliant people who decide it is not for them – then government can make sure that there are plenty of good vocational options available".

Nevertheless, he concluded by saying that, rather than trying to shrink HE, policymakers should be more focused on young people who are neither in education or training of any kind because “that is the real disaster, far more economically pernicious than a swelling universities sector”. He was evidently opposed to any attempt by the Treasury to ask universities to “justify every penny of investment through a narrow calculation of their economic output”, suggesting again that he does not subscribe to some of the analysis in the Augar review about low-value HE provision.

There is always a risk that one reads too much into a speech from a shadow minister given over a decade ago. Not only could Mr Johnson have changed his mind, also the world of FE and HE has changed dramatically since 2006.

Even so, he was correct that, in the context of poor-quality alternatives to university, “those who take the decision to enter higher education are right or at least rational”. Because of significant concerns about apprenticeship quality and the future of T levels, this still holds true today. Unless these issues are addressed sooner rather than later, it is hard to see FE being given the same prominence as HE with Mr Johnson, or indeed anyone else, in Number 10.

Tom Richmond is director of the EDSK thinktank

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