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Lord Johnson of Marylebone


Jo Johnson is a politician who was a Member of Parliament for Orpington from 2010 to 2019. As Head of the No.10 Downing Street Policy Unit from 2013-2015 and as a Minister of State attending Cabinet, Jo has been a prominent figure in government policy-making in recent Conservative administrations. He served in a number of ministerial roles, including as Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation in the Governments of three different prime ministers.  

He has since become non-executive chairman at Access Creative College, the largest independent provider of specialist further education and training for the creative industries.  Jo is also a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, President's Professorial Fellow at King's College London and writes for a range of publications, including the Financial Times, where he worked in his early career, mostly as a foreign correspondent based in France and India. He is a Member of the House of Lords, a Member of the Privy Council, a Member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and a Director of the Dyson Institute for Engineering & Technology. 


President, Vice Chancellor, Governor, Graduates and Graduands, Guests, and Colleagues: Today, it is my great honour to welcome Jo Johnson to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Joseph Edmund Johnson, Baron Johnson of Marylebone, was born in London in 1971 to the Conservative MEP Stanley Johnson and the incredible artist Charlotte Johnson Wahl, née Fawcett. He was the youngest of four children –former Prime Minister Boris, journalist Rachel, and entrepreneur and filmmaker Leo. No wonder their home was a competitive hotbed, all members being deeply engaged in current affairs.

Johnson was educated at the European School in Brussels, the leading North London prep school called The Hall School (established in 1889), Ashdown House School in East Sussex (one of the oldest prep schools in Britain, having been opened in 1843), and then the public school, Eton College. From there, he went to Balliol College, Oxford, which was founded in the thirteenth century so is not only the oldest academic institution in the English-speaking world still on its original site, but also the oldest co-founded by a woman (Dervorguilla de Balliol). He read history (graduating in 1994). His academic success was followed by an MBA from INSEAD (the business school in Fontainebleau, France) and a licence spéciale from the Institut d'Etudes Européennes at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

An early start in investment bank was exchanged fairly quickly for the more intellectually exciting job of journalism, mainly (although by no means exclusively) at the Financial Times, where he was not only an Associate Editor but Head of Lex, the world's most influential financial column, published daily since 1945. Paris, New Delhi, and London have all been his journalistic homes, providing him with a vision of the world that is not only unique but also prize-winning. He has also tried his hand at book-length works, including The Man who Tried to Buy the World (with Martine Orange in 2003), which traces the rise and fall of French empire builder and CEO Jean-Marie Messier, and Reconnecting Britain and India: Ideas for an Enhanced Partnership (edited with Rajiv Kumar in 2011), which is about forging strong ties between the two nations and includes essays from more than three dozen leaders from politics, academia, business, and the arts.

Johnson's passion for the written word and its ability to change the world competed with his love of party politics. This took over his life from 2010 when, as a member of the Conservative Party, he stood for parliament for the constituency of Orpington, in south-east London. For three elections in a row (from 2010 to 2019), he increased the majority held by his party, serving under three Prime Ministers. Three years after being voted into Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed him Director of the Number 10 Policy Unit. This was followed in quick succession by appointments as Minister of State for the Cabinet Office and, between 2015 and 2018 (then in 2019), Minister for State for Universities, Science, Research, and Innovation. Johnson has also served as Minister of State for Transport as well as Minister for London.

Johnson is the first MP to serve in government as the brother of an incumbent Prime Minister, even though their differences are legendary, particularly around Brexit. He eventually resigned, admitting to having been "torn between family and national interests". From July 2020, he has been a member of the House of Lords. This has not dampened his energy and urge to make a difference in the world. Indeed, his commitments increased dramatically. He is a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School and a Professorial Fellow at King's College London. Journalism continues to occupy much of his time.

Education and technology are passions. He serves as a non-executive chairman at the TES Group, the education software and information group that owns the Times Educational Supplement, chairman of Access Creative College (an independent provider of training for the digital and creative industries), chairman of the technological company Apply Board (which encourages international studies), a member at Council of the Dyson Institute for Engineering and Technology, and Director of Tech Nation Group, a UK growth platform for tech companies and leaders. As director of Elara Capital (an India-focused investment bank), India continues to absorb his business and political interests. If these are not enough (and I need to remind people that they are only a snapshot of all his activities!), Johnson is also on numerous advisory boards, including of the strategic consulting firm Shearwater Global, the education investment company Global Academic Holdings, Halp (an education technology company), and Bifinity (a payment technology company).

For us today – celebrating the educational achievements of our graduates – it is Johnson's commitment to Birkbeck's mission and his advocacy of Higher and part-time education that warms us to him. It has been refreshing to meet a Minister and now Member of the House of Lords who is willing to discuss how our students can better thrive. In 2017, in his role as Minister for Universities, he introduced the Higher Education and Research Act. This Act held universities more accountable for the quality of teaching, introduced the Office for Students, and replaced the UK's fragmentary research funding bodies with UK Research and Innovation. Johnson was also important in the provision of maintenance loans for part-time students. His commitment to international students has also been longstanding – perhaps not coincidental since he benefitted so much by having access to international universities. Johnson had been disturbed by the dramatic decline of international students between 2011 and 2016, partly due to immigration rules that allowed international students to work for only four to six months after completing their studies. Among Indian students alone, this resulted in a drop in numbers from 30,000 in 2011-12 to just 16,000 in 2016-17. When he was Minister, he secured an amendment to the Immigration Bill, which reintroduced a two-year working visa for international students, thus providing opportunities for the brightest international students to contribute to the UK economy. The policy made study in Britain more appealing to international students who had been choosing Australian and Canadian universities over British ones.

Just last year, Johnson became deeply involved in debates about Lifelong Learning Entitlements or LLE, arguing that studies should be able to be taken in credit or modular form, and emphasising the need for funding for short courses. This would make it easier for people to access learning in a more flexible way, including combining employment with their studies and being allowed to space out their courses. He sought to reverse the policy that Higher Education students in England would be eligible for loans only if they were studying at the equivalent of 25% or more of a full-time equivalent course, which, as Johnson noted, had been "an important factor in the decline of part-time learners".

Recently, Johnson has also spoken particularly eloquently against the so-called ELQ rule. The "equivalent or lower qualification rule" excludes students from receiving tuition fee loans or maintenance support if they are doing a degree of equivalent or lower status to one they had already received. For example, a woman who completed an MA in English Literature would not be eligible for financial support if, ten years later, she wanted to reskill by doing a BA in Law. Johnson pointed out that not only was this rule unusual globally (therefore making England less competitive), but it also "constrains student choice about how best to re-train if they already have a qualification" and "treats tertiary education... as a one-off event, rather than as part of a process of lifelong learning in a world where people can expect to have multiple careers over their working lives". Furthermore, Johnson continued, the commitment to ELQ represents a flawed understanding of "value for money", which "crudely measures the worth of the course by how much students repay of their loans". It is also based on "an entirely misplaced belief in Whitehall's ability to predict the skills needs of the economy.... If Covid has taught us anything it is surely that we need to value socially useful but lower-earning professions". He consistently insists that Britain's global reputation in the field of education, as well as our economy, needs Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences as much as the STEM subjects.

Finally, a few brief words about the man. Jo Johnson is married to Amelia Gentleman who, born into a family distinguished by its artists and writer, is also a prize-winning journalist and writer. I can strongly recommend her incredible book entitled The Windrush Betrayal, Exposing the Hostile Environment. They have two children. As a person, Johnson is serious, thoughtful, confident, interested in the details, and unafraid of assessing the evidence and acting on what he believes to be the best for the nation. As a specialist in education policy, he has advocated for us as an institution as well as for our students. For these reasons, we are thrilled to welcome him to this College Fellowship.