Alan Johnson: Top-up fees vote is 'not mission impossible'

THe Monday Interview: Minister for Higher Education
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Alan Johnson was a postman, he delivered a letter to a house in an affluent market town and heard whoops of joy coming from inside. It was a university acceptance letter.

"I remember a sunny day in Farnham Common when I was a postman, going to the door and just hearing the cheers the other side of the door," he says. "By the time I got to the gate there was shouting and screaming."

If the Government gets its way this week, that postman would be handing over not only an acceptance letter but a "to pay" notice for tuition fees of up to £3,000. Mr Johnson is no longer concerned with letters but a different sort of delivery. As Higher Education minister he is in charge of pushing through a controversial reform of university funding that would usher in top-up fees for students. The plan will go to a knife-edge vote in the House of Commons tomorrow.

The minister, who dropped out of the Sloane Grammar School, Chelsea to pursue a dream of becoming a rock star, is in no doubt about the gravity of his task.

If he fails, not only would Labour suffer its first defeat since coming into office, but the Government's entire policy would disintegrate, leaving a huge vacuum in funding.

"This is mission bloody-difficult. But it's not mission impossible," he says. "It's tight, of course it's tight. It would be difficult to say, this is a bed of roses and it's really comfortable, we're gonna walk it. But I think we will win it, yeah."

He will unveil the Government's trump card today to try to convince the many MPs who plan to vote against his plans. He will announce a review examining the effect of "variable" fees on poor students, new universities and recruitment to teaching and nursing.

Mr Johnson, who grew up in a council flat, was orphaned as a teenager and brought up by his older sister, rejects the argument that working-class children will be put off by university fees. He seems quite angry at the charge.

"I just reject the notion that working-class kids are more debt averse than youngsters from other backgrounds," he says. "I just reject it completely, absolutely completely. I don't think there is the slightest shred of evidence to say that because you are from a working- class background there is something in your genes or in your upbringing that makes it difficult for you to comprehend this. I come from this background."

The minister says most children today are savvy about the concept of deferred payments - the system he wants to introduce - instead of the up-front fees that currently apply. He says perceptions have changed since the post-war period when "working-class people by and large lived in council houses and didn't have mortgages".

"A bright working-class kid at 18 with 2 good A-levels is well aware of credit cards and mobile phones and mortgages and the way society works - that's the world they live in," he says.

When Mr Johnson was growing up in Chelsea, his preoccupation was not mortgages but rock music. He was dazzled by the glamour of the King's Road where trendy creatures used to cruise by.

"At school in the King's Road in the 60s, we used to go to the World's End pub and stand outside to see Mick Jagger and Keith Richards because they were reputed to drink there," he recalls. "I left school at 15. I was gonna be a rock 'n' roll singer."

He looks animated as he reminisces about his teenage years. "I used to go to gigs yeah; following the Stones and the Yardbirds. The CrawDaddy club in Richmond, The Marquee Club in Wardour Street - went there for years," he says. "I'm not like the Prime Minister jumping around in bloomer pants, or whatever it was. I was a serious music fan - still am."

Mr Johnson looks every inch a serious music fan. He is alarmingly cool with his trendy black shoes, slightly slicked back hair and streetwise London accent. It doesn't take too much effort to envisage him in Beatle boots. As he reels off the bands he is currently into, you wonder, am I talking to a rock impresario - or a Minister of the Crown?

"I don't buy Dire Straits' greatest hits and all that shit," he says. "The Super Furry Animals are really, really, really superb. Ryan Adams. Mull Historical Society. Elbow." Mr Johnson's assistant, who is about 25 and wearing a leather jacket, looks bemused at the reference to Elbow. "Come on, do keep up," says the minister. "Music has never been so good as it is now. It's a constantly evolving situation."

His grasp of the contemporary music scene must set him in good stead among students he meets. But the minister is reluctant to show off.

"I try to avoid that unless someone raises it," he says.

The minister, who has impressed Tony Blair with his incisive grasp of policy and communication skills, has still not ruled out going to university himself. He prefers the tag "never been to university yet" to the more familiar version "never been to university" which he says "belongs in an obituary".

He is enthusiastic about academic study, insisting his plans for fees will not drive students studying disciplines such as ancient Greek into more vocational courses. But he rejects as "incredible garbage" claims by the British Medical Association that medical students will face debts of another £20,000 on top of what they will pay now.

Mr Johnson quotes reams of repayment figures, arguing that his proposals for deferred fees are a "much more benign repayment system" than the current up-front system.

However, he admits, with surprising candour for an up-and-coming minister, (he is tipped for the Cabinet), that the current £3,000 cap on tuition fees will be lifted eventually. Yet he rejects predictions of a fully-fledged market in higher education. "If Charles Clarke and I stood at the dispatch box and said this will stay exactly the same for the next 75 years, people would fall about laughing," he says. "We try to convince people that there is no hidden agenda to move from £3,000 to £5,000 overnight. We have got no plan to jump from £3,000 to £5,000 or £15,000 or whatever."

Yet, when pressed, Mr Johnson admits he can envisage fees rising for students within 15 years. "Yes I can see there being a different cap ... But can I see an unregulated top-up fee in their proper sense? No I can't. I cannot see that at all happening in the UK."

He also admits that the Labour leadership should have done more to consult the party about its proposals before publishing them. And he owns up to the charge - unlike Tony Blair - that the Government broke its manifesto commitment not to introduce top-up fees. "Is the party open to the charge that it has broken a manifesto commitment? Yes," he says. "Is that crime of a century for a government? No."

The decision to break the manifesto commitment but tackle "a serious problem" of university funding was the courageous choice for the Prime Minister to make, he contends.

"The temptation must have been for the quiet life. We could have just said, 'let's not even go near the higher education issue, put some more taxpayer's money in but leave it.

"We could have sat back, taken the plaudits for that and just left the issue alone," he says. "So to grasp the nettle I think is admirable."


BORN: May 17 1950

EDUCATION: Sloane Grammar School, Chelsea


1968: postman

1993-95: General secretary of Communication Workers Union

1995-97: Joint general secretary Communications Workers Union

1997: MP for Hull West and Hessle

1999-2001: Minister for competitiveness

2001-03: Minister for Employment relations and regions

2003: Minister for higher education