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BIS to erase its institutional memory on higher education?

  • 30 January 2016

The single most frustrating thing about working in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which looks after higher education policy, is the lack of institutional memory. The surest way for a BIS official to be promoted is to change jobs as frequently as possible.

This matters for good policymaking. For example, if officials who had worked on Tony Blair’s tripling of tuition fees had also worked on the Coalition’s tripling of fees, then Ministers would have been much less likely to have claimed that fees at the maximum level would be ‘exceptional’. They would have better understood that the maximum swiftly becomes the norm.

Yet one little-known fact about how recent higher education policymaking is set in the UK is that much of it resides in Yorkshire – in Sheffield. The BIS officials there are much less likely to jump in and out of higher education policy because the non-education functions of the department are not typically undertaken in Sheffield. So they tend to work in education for years and many a pratfall is avoided as a result.

Last year in a speech to Bradford University, I said:

In fact, it is little understood  may not know just how much of the Government’s HE policy engine resides here in Yorkshire. No important Whitehall meeting on higher education is complete until the BIS office in Sheffield has dialled in. If you don’t already, I urge you to engage directly with the civil servants in Sheffield, as they hold BIS’s institutional memory on HE and often know more than the policymakers who are nominally closer to the centre of power.

So it is a genuine tragedy for good public policymaking that BIS has today announced the closure of their Sheffield office. Details of the Urgent Question in the House of Commons can be found here.


  1. Alyson Fender says:

    The huge irony of closing BIS Sheffield site by the Dept leading the Northern Powerhouse is not lost on the press. The sad personal impact is being felt by many of my former HE colleagues. Many who won’t find other jobs. I’m trying hard not to be emotional and I know it’s hard to feel sorry for civil servants, but hell they work hard! Be afraid HE. The loss of understanding of what HE is FOR & the chances of ameliorating the worst of political dogma is about to be much diminished

  2. Dan Smith says:

    Good piece.

    On Sheffield itself, the site is also a repository of expertise on further education, and this is at risk too, with similar unhappy consequences.

    BIS’s public explanation of the decision is really just so much management speak, but the argument seems to be that policy making is best done on a single site. This is curiously retrograde: Sheffield had a successful policy making in the 1980s and today’s technologies make the co-ordination problem trivial. The notion that policy making has to be done in SW1 is a similarly odd closing down of perspectives.

    It’s all very curious, and not thought through at all. (I think it’s quite well recognised that the BIS top management team has always see the organisation as a business department with an expensive-to-maintain education annexe).

    On a wider point, the civil service is not only failing to maintain its collective memory: many of its leaders seem to have lost sight of how valuable the collective memory it is. The model seems to be that officialdom should essentially be like a blue chip consultancy firm which solves problems as they arise but has no need to take the long view.

  3. dkernohan says:

    BIS are compounding their error by not offering relocation expenses to Sheffield staff whose roles will still have to be performed, in London.

  4. Dan Smith says:

    In fairness relocation expenses if meeting real costs would be extraordinary. Which tells us, Nick’s arguments aside, how peculiar the whole thing is.

    I can’t imagine the Chancellor would have been terribly impressed by the stategic brilliance of this. “200 jobs from Sheffield to London? You surely mean the other way round?”

    Anna Soubry looked every inch the minister sent out with a duff brief yesterday. I expect some chewing out occurred afterwards. If BIS has a case for its decision it certainly decided not to let the Minister in on the secret

  5. Gordon McKenzie says:

    It is a good piece and the value of institutional memory shouldn’t be understated. I should declare an interest because I worked in the Sheffield BIS office as a HE policy maker until last year.
    I can’t see any reason for this decision that makes sense – not financial sense (Sheffield office costs versus London ones); political sense (all the Northern powerhouse comments); or good policy making sense (losing expertise and institutional memory across FE and HE). I fear the only reason is it looked good on PowerPoint at whatever meeting signed this off – a neat diagram of the future BIS organisation; a “bold” decision.

  6. FCarr says:

    A good piece and all good comments following. Sadly, I suspect if this kind of evidence and logic were going to occur to, or have impact on any of the decision makers now, this ‘bold idea’ wouldn’t ever have got past the “here’s a bit of bold, blue skies thinking to get our creative juices working” stage in the first place! It certainly wouldn’t have got anywhere near to reality. What an enormous shame! Not suggesting that this is life changing for anyone other than myself and other Sheffield/Daresbury colleagues, but social psychology has many examples of the life-changing results of people around a table failing to speak out and who are unwilling to appear as non-conformist, despite personal reservations ….

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