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.