This article by Nick Hillman, HEPI Director, was originally published last Saturday on by HE from Research Professional.
The head of steam has finally blown the gasket. The pressure that had been mounting for several years to plonk higher education policy back alongside other education matters within Whitehall has triumphed. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is dead; long live the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
The shifting of higher education policy in England over to the Department for Education was not inevitable, but it was still no great surprise. Recreating a single education behemoth of the sort once presided over by big political figures like Tony Crosland, Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher, has been proposed many times in recent years. Moreover, the old business department annoyed Theresa May when she was home secretary, especially when run by that cantankerous Lib Dem, Vince Cable, who could be just as stubborn as the new prime minister herself. The person who lobbied hardest for the change was Michael Gove―perhaps it will seem a silver lining to the clouds that beset his life after he threw his hat into the ring to become prime minister.
In the years since higher education left what was then called the Department for Education and Skills in 2007, it has bounced around Whitehall like a rubber ball. First, it landed in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Then, a couple of years later, its home became the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Now it has arrived back in what is known colloquially by civil servants as ‘Sanctuary Buildings’. It is worth noting, though, that the people working on higher education are expected to retain their desks down the road at 1 Victoria Street, where the business department resides, rather than physically moving―at least for now.
Observers can argue about the right shape of Whitehall until the cows come home. Some people say it is obvious all education should sit together; others say that reflects a lack of understanding about the breadth of universities’ roles―such as their position as strong local economic agents. One may recall that the single most important text on UK higher education, the Robbins report of 1963, rejected the idea of a single education department because schools and universities are so different, and instead advocated a separate Ministry of Arts and Science.
Ultimately, this is a pointless argument. Unless Whitehall is to be one single department, which would be unworkable, there will always be boundaries between policy areas. Removing higher education from the business department and putting it in the education department removes the boundary between schools and universities but creates a new one between higher education and research. Commentators can dispute which is better but any structure can be made to work with the right people and sufficient will and Jo Johnson is staying on as minister with a formal role in both departments. Personally, I would not have made the change because reorganising stuff saps energy, time and money and is less important than doing stuff. Yet we must play with the hand dealt.
So the main question is how will it all function in practice? That depends on the tactics of the politicians in charge. A wise secretary of state for education―and no one describes Justine Greening as a fool―will immediately do two things. First, make it clear that her junior minister with responsibility for higher education will have considerable autonomy. (When the Department for Education and Science was first set up in 1964, against the wishes of the Robbins report, it briefly had two permanent secretaries to emphasise the differences in overseeing schools and universities.)
Second, she should make a speech or emit some other signal to show she understands university is not just big school. That may sound obvious, but when I was special adviser to the universities and science minister, we were lobbied by people close to the education department to compel universities to demand certain entry qualifications―essentially, maths for all. Autonomy over admissions is a defining feature of the English higher education system and any secretary of state who thinks they can complement the schools admissions code with something akin to a university admissions code would have a tough battle on their hands.
In the medium term, Greening and her fellow ministers could make the new arrangements work by considering those areas where the different parts of the education system have shared interests. For example, the most cost efficient way to ensure a good match between school leavers and available opportunities in further and higher education is to invest in proper careers advice. In the period when schools were divided from further and higher education, the arguments for better careers advice fell down the gap. That chasm no longer exists, at least in theory. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that university-based teacher training will enjoy a resurgence too now that higher education institutions reside in the same bit of Whitehall as schools.
There are also areas where the different parts of the education system could learn from each other. For example, as the Teaching Excellence Framework is rolled out, what might universities learn (positive and negative) from evaluating teaching in schools? Should higher education have a toolkit on widening participation similar to that which exists for spending pupil premium cash? In recent times, the business department has displayed more interest in the underperformance of young males than the education department, which has largely ignored the problem. Perhaps England can now have a joined-up strategy to tackle the issue, which is fast becoming worse.
Finally, everyone should spare a thought for the officials working on higher education policy who were employed by the business department in Sheffield. The decision by the business department to shut down its part of the Sheffield office, while the education department kept its open, was always strange. The potential savings were overblown and, given the higher education and research bill is currently before parliament, it was appalling timing. Now that Whitehall is undergoing yet more turbulence, revisiting that decision should be an urgent priority.