What Gove's meetings with Murdoch tell us

Is News Corp looking to set up its own free schools?

Of all the meetings that cabinet ministers had with News International executives (on average, a member of the cabinet met a Murdoch executive every three days), it is Michael Gove's that are the most eye catching. The Education Secretary listed 11 meetings at which executives from the company were present, including seven with Rupert Murdoch. Gove met the News Corp head more times than any other minister and had dinner with him twice last month.

Here's the full list:

19 May 2010 Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), Rebekah Brooks (News International), plus more than ten others. Dinner and general discussion.

10 June 2010 Rebekah Brooks (News International), plus several others. Dinner and general discussion.

17 June 2010 News International executives and senior editors, including Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), and Rebekah Brooks (News International). Lunch and general discussion.

21 October 2010 Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), Rebekah Brooks (News International), James Harding (The Times), Dominic Mohan (The Sun), James Murdoch (News Corporation), Colin Myler (News of the World), John Witherow (Sunday Times) plus more than ten others. Dinner after Centre for Policy Studies lecture.

30 November 2010 Rebekah Brooks (News International), Will Lewis (News International), James Harding (The Times). Academy visit.

17 December 2010 Rebekah Brooks (News International) plus several others. Social.

25 - 28 January 2011 Joel Klein (now News Corporation, former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education and Assistant Attorney General to President Clinton), visiting UK as guest of DfE to explain and discuss US education policy success, including large conference platform and assorted dinners with senior figures from education and the media, including Rupert Murdoch. Including private and public events

31 January 2011 Rebekah Brooks (News International), plus several others. Dinner hosted by Academy sponsor Charles Dunstone.

19 May 2011 James Harding (The Times), Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), James Murdoch (News Corporation), Rebekah Brooks (News International). Breakfast and general discussion.

16 June 2011 Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation) plus several others. Dinner and general discussion.

26 June 2011 Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), plus several others. Dinner and general discussion.

It all suggests, as Andy Burnham said, a rather strange set of priorities. The shadow education secretary noted that in his first seven months, Gove "didn't manage to visit a single sixth form college, further education college or special school."

So, what's the explanation? Gove is, of course, a former Times journalist, who, we know from the register of members' interests, received £5,000 a month for his weekly column. He is also due to write a biography of Viscount Bolingbroke for the Murdoch-owned Harper Collins. Then there's his friendship with Murdoch consigliere Joel Klein (he sat next to Wendi Deng at the select committee hearing), the former chancellor of the New York department of education, who is now the head of News Corp's new "management and standards committee" and the CEO of its growing education division. Significantly, it was Klein's charter schools that served as one of the key inspirations for Gove's "free schools" project.

A spokesman for Gove said: "He's known Rupert Murdoch for over a decade. He did not discuss the BSkyB deal with the Murdochs and isn't at all embarrassed about his meetings, most of which have been about education which is his job."

The News Corp head, it seems, is taking an increasing interest in the subject. At last month's Times CEO summit (£) he called for all pupils to be provided with tablet computers, adding that he would be "thrilled" if 10 per cent of News Corp's revenues came from education in the next five years. Wireless Generation, an education technology company recently acquired by Murdoch for $360m, was awarded a a $27 million no-bid contract by the New York education department.

It begs the question of whether News Corp is looking to set up its own free schools. In response to such a query, Times columnist and executive editor Daniel Finkelstein tweeted:

News Corp is indeed taking an interest in the creation of new schools. That is precisely what mtgs were about!

It's not hard to see why the company is "taking an interest", particularly if the schools are eventually allowed to make a profit. But, to coin a phrase, would News Corp really be considered a "fit and proper" company to run a school?

Even if the company's ambitions are limited to digital learning systems and other services, it could find itself under scrutiny. In the wake of the hacking scandal, the NY education department is under pressure to revoke the $27 million contract it awarded to Wireless Generation. Mark Johnson, a spokesman for controller Thomas DiNapoli, has announced that the scandal will be taken into account in the state review process for the contract. But will Gove allow News Corp to make similar inroads into English education?

Update: The Sun's former political editor George Pascoe Watson (now a partner at Portland Communications) notes on Twitter: "[I]s News Corp looking to set up its own free schools?>The Sun+Civitas already have done."

A glance at the Civitas website shows that the Sun funds a Saturday school at the Ensign Youth Club in Wapping.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.