Friday, April 20, 2007

Boris Johnson at the University of Bedfordshire

What to make of Boris Johnson?

I know this an unlikely question for me to address on 'Betwixt and Between' however the question arose because the University of Bedfordshire played host to the Shadow Minister for Higher Education today and I was lucky enough to attend the Q & A session that marked the end of his visit.

I have to say that my first impression of Big Boris is that he is something of a caricature. He bumbles and mumbles (and his hair resembles a peroxide haystack). However, he also has charisma and is quite capable of delivering both wit and charm. For example, he began his opening remarks to the gathered audience of students and staff by noting that he was glad to be in Luton as “it was one of the few places in the UK that I have not insulted”. He then followed this up by re-iterating (apparently from memory) many of the bullet-points made by the VC over the course of the day that placed the University of Bedfordshire as a “top” institution. This was greeted, needless to say, by crowd-pleased applause. We were not quite eating out of his hand but we were not throwing eggs either!

The structure of the Q&A session was also an insight into the world of Boris. The VC offered him a chance to make some opening remarks (Policy on the hoof? Remarks about Conservative plans for the HE sector?). However, our guest avoided making a speech and instead made some well-received remarks - about the importance of getting positive male role-models into primary schools - the need to support physics in schools and universities - and then conducted a straw poll on the renewal of Trident. He then moved on to the questions from the audience.

One of my colleagues raised the difficulties faced by students with disabilities. This is an important issue. The UoB, for example, has 900 students with registered disabilities and we are keen for them to complete their degrees. However, many students across the country are dropping out of courses due to lack of adequate funding. Boris gave the impression that he was listening and willing to take up the issue in Westminster.

The issue of the Aimhigher scheme also came up. Boris avoided the obvious oppositional stance noting that he thought this scheme was "good" before noting that it might necessary to question whether its methods are working.

Boris made a number of commitments to social justice and equality of opportunity while answering questions. For example, he argued that it was important that every child could read and write properly ('synthetic phonics', 'grammar' and 'zero tolerance of errors in punctuation' were the dish of the day). He also sounded convincing when he argued that we needed to give VCs more autonomy so that they could run their institutions as they see fit.

However, I felt that some of the questions from the floor were dealt with without recourse to a substantive answer. Questions about the RAE, student funding and others got short, rather vague answers. Boris was, however, willing to ask questions which gave me the impression that he was genuinely keen to hear an answer to the question that audience had posed him. Sometimes, however, this willingness to listen also gave the impression that the MP for Henley did not really know what his policy might be on these key areas.

Boris was never without a quotable word. He is sound-bite man. I found myself jotting down his quips even when I found his answers disappointing. For example, the Q&A drifted onto the subject of the governance of Oxford and Cambridge. Boris noted that despite the financial issues it was highly unlikely that either of them would become a private institution, noting that they were a "hotbed of cold feet".

I began this posting by asking a rhetorical question. What to make of Boris Johnson? Well he is a mix bag really. A colourful, energetic and charismatic man with a rather odd manner. Whether he will make a good minister of state is another question. I recommend seeing the man up close and I also recommend that you see through his charm and ask yourself about his answers (as well as his hair do).

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Blogger adam said...

his wicked hair do you mean ;)

12:37 AM  

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