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Who are Jo Johnson’s Numskulls?*

  • 16 November 2016

The Numskulls (Source:


The recent WonkHE Power List 2016 was a bit of fun with a serious purpose. Asking who wields influence over any policy area is a really good question – even though, as with all the other higher education league tables, we can argue over the results. (I declare an interest as I sneaked on to the list, for the first time. As a big fan in my youth of the chart show, it made my day to be a ‘new entry at number 32’.)

The Power List rightly takes a broad and international perspective.  The President of China, a European Commissioner and the Chancellor of Germany all made the top 10. They are above the Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, who was a new entry at number 7.

A list of people acting as the biggest levers on Jo Johnson and his key officials would look different. It would be made up largely of people who are not so well-known to the world outside. Here, in no particular order, is my attempt at a top five (only one of whom is also on WonkHE’s Power List).

  1. Anthony Grayling: If you really want to understand the Government’s agenda on alternative providers, then you have to look at Grayling’s New College of Humanities. It is the struggle that they have faced in obtaining degree-awarding powers that has given Ministers evidence on how the current regulations block innovative new providers. For all the controversy stoked by NCH (and their own original questionable public relations), it is hard to argue that Britain is worse off having a confident high-quality liberal arts college in the heart of London, and it would not have happened with Grayling’s original leadership. Either way, its existence has exposed parts of the system that are not operating smoothly, at least to those who favour some form of market in higher education.
  1. Gervas Huxley: Jo Johnson’s desire to put teaching and learning more squarely at the heart of the public policy debate on higher education, through initiatives like the Teaching Excellence Framework, owes a great deal to someone who is not often mentioned even in the specialist press. Gervas Huxley is a Teaching Fellow in the Economics Department at the University of Bristol and has long argued that research has trumped teaching in universities and that this should be rebalanced. You can read his logs at here, here, here and here. He has consistently focused on contact hours and class size and the relationship between the two. Here he is doing so in a lecture at his university a few years ago: To understand fully why the most recent grant letter to HEFCE, the higher education white paper and the Government’s response to their own TEF consultation discuss teaching intensity, you need to look at the concerns Gervas Huxley has been raising and encouraging others to raise, often behind the scenes, for many years.
  1. Bahram Bekhradnia: My predecessor at Director HEPI (and our current President) set up the Academic Experience Survey in early 2006. This is one of the progenitors of the Teaching Excellence Framework and pretty much every speech Jo Johnson has made that refers to the TEF also refers to the Survey’s findings on contact hours, value for money and student satisfaction. Like all surveys, it is not perfect but, when I worked in the Whitehall, we sought to undertake a comparison of how teaching and learning had changed since the time of the Robbins report in the early 1960s and the only roughly comparable data for the present day that our civil servants were able to find were the latest Academic Experience Survey results.
  1. David Palfreyman: The Bursar of New College Oxford and the Director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (OxCHEPS) takes a no-holds-barred approach when critiquing British universities. As a result, he must have a good claim to be the most influential person in a non-academic post currently working in a British university. In his 2015 speech to the Universities UK Annual Conference, Jo Johnson was open about Palfreyman’s influence on his views: ‘But there are also institutions and individual academics that take a different approach; that have struck what academics David Palfreyman and Ted Tapper describe as a “disengagement contract” with their students’. In the past, there have been rumours that he has been in the frame for a big formal job but there is no hard evidence either that he would want it or that the sector would accept it without kicking up a stink.
  1. Anthony Seldon: The fifth big influence is the relatively new Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham. David Willetts once predicted he would get more press coverage than any other Vice-Chancellor, which now does seem to be happening for his published output on contemporary politics, his outspoken remarks about teaching quality and his views on mindfulness – not to mention the new annual Festival of Higher Education that he has recently established.

* For the avoidance of doubt, Numskulls are different to numbskulls.

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