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Where should HE reside in Whitehall?

  • 14 July 2016

Back in 2014, aeons ago in political terms, I wrote a piece for Insight, the magazine of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, on whether or not responsibility for higher education policymaking should be plonked back in the Department for Education. Given the strong rumours of the demise of the current Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), encouraged overnight by the appointment of Liam Fox to a new international trade role, I am posting an extract from that article that lists some of the risks of putting higher education back alongside schools.

There are, admittedly, some counterarguments too that are not discussed below: for example, the breadth of BIS’s responsibilities means civil servants often roll around from higher education to trade to consumer affairs without ever building a really secure understanding of the way our education system operates, whereas the Education Department does largely restrict itself to education matters.

Just because lots of influential people think it is axiomatic that schools, further education colleges and universities belong together, it is worth testing the idea. Are the current arrangements really so bad? Are there things that currently work well that would be lost? Is yet another Whitehall upheaval worth the pain and cost?

There are five arguments for the current arrangements.

First, there is a logic in having the business department take responsibility for the parts of the system that educate people closest to the labour market, such as university and college students. Moreover, universities and colleges are not just teaching institutions but major economic entities in their own right at the heart of their cities and regions. They help run Local Enterprise Partnerships, conduct bespoke research and training for employers and are, sometimes, the largest single employer in an area.

Secondly, plonking post-compulsory education back into the Department for Education (DfE) would pose a conundrum about where to put science policy, which has bounced around Whitehall like a rubber ball over the years. It could be moved across to the DfE alongside higher education or it could be left in a denuded BIS. Neither option seems to serve the best interests of our world-class research base.

Thirdly, having schooling and higher education in different places creates friction. That may sound unhelpful and inimical to the mantra of ‘joined-up government’. But a certain level of friction serves a purpose by forcing different parts of Government to discuss tricky issues in a way that does not always happen when an issue sits within a single department. It is no secret that the DfE and BIS have different views on issues like careers advice, transnational education and the use of contextual data for university admissions. That forces Number 10, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office to think about these issues too.

Fourthly, when people working in universities tell me they want to go back under the DfE, I ask them why they think the arm of government that looks after nurseries, schools and the National Curriculum would fervently protect the autonomy of English universities. (Perhaps independent schools, which have a similar level of autonomy to our universities, should be lobbying to come under BIS?) The old Department for Education and Science drew a binary divide between universities and polytechnics specifically in order to maintain a high degree of influence over the latter and the DfE’s current stance on university-based teaching training suggests it is not an instinctive supporter of what goes on in our universities.

Fifthly, it is not widely understood how much personalities matter when it comes to shaping Whitehall. The question of whether higher education, further education and research institutions should revert to the DfE is not just a theoretical problem in search of the perfect answer. It is also a question of which ministerial team at any moment would provide the best oversight of the relevant policy area.

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