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When 2 Become 1: Why putting HE and FE together in Whitehall almost certainly would not make sense

  • 22 September 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

So the reshuffle is over and we think we know where we stand. In essence, we have a new Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi) and a new Science Minister (George Freeman) but we have retained our previous Secretary of State for BEIS (Kwasi Kwarteng), who covers science and research at Cabinet level, as well as our previous Minister for Universities (Michelle Donelan), who sits in the Department for Education.

If the commentary is to be believed, Michelle Donelan is no longer to be just the Minister for Universities, however, even though that remains her formal title. For example, four days ago FEWeek breathlessly reported ‘Multiple sources told FE Week that Donelan has been telling staff she will be responsible for all post-18 education’ in a piece headlined ‘Reshuffle: Michelle Donelan taking FE and skills brief – sources’.

Part of what seems to have got people excited is the Department for Education’s list of ministerial responsibilities, shown below, which says Donelan is now the Minister with responsibility for ‘strategy for post-16 education’. Formally, she shares that job with a new Minister, Alex Burghart, who has the title of Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, although Donelan is clearly the senior partner, as she is a rank higher (Minister of State) and now has the right to attend Cabinet.

I suspect people may have got the wrong end of the stick, given the previous list of ministerial responsibilities (see below) used the same form of words, describing Michelle Donelan’s responsibilities as including ‘Strategy for post-16 education (jointly with Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills))’. Donelan used to share this role with Gillian Keegan; she now shares it with Alex Burghart.

Nonetheless, the rumours swirling around about the apparent merging of responsibilities are worth reflecting upon. The idea of lumping FE and HE together within the same ministerial office was widely welcomed by many of those who thought it was happening. It seems logical that policy responsibility for the latter stages of formal education should be put together in one place. HE works with FE. FE works with HE. The Augar report dealt with all post-18 education. Putting all post-16 education together dissolves those old divides and works towards the fabled parity of esteem that every Government promises (but none has yet delivered).

But if an important shift were happening, then I am not at all convinced it should be regarded as an unalloyed positive. There is good policymaking and there is neat-and-tidy policymaking and they are not always the same. In fact, they are often the opposite of one another.

Why do we always assume ‘joined-up government’ is an unalloyed good? When lots of policy areas are covered by the same Minister or the same Department, important issues are decided in a less open way. In contrast, when you have a Minister for FE and a Minister for HE, they have to discuss and debate their priorities and the Secretary of State has to intervene to settle any differences of opinion. The chances of the central departments, like Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, becoming involved are higher too.

Points of friction are points of debate and discussion, which is how smart policy gets made.

Points of friction are points of debate and discussion, which is how smart policy gets made. We may all get very excited when the media uncovers a difference of opinion within a ministerial team but, while leaks are unhelpful, differences of opinion are actually evidence of government working how it should, with different ministers bringing different opinions, experiences and interests to the table and then thrashing out their differences.

I suspect many people will disagree. But consider this: at the moment, there is (rightly or wrongly) a consensus in large parts of Whitehall and elsewhere that FE is underfunded and that HE has not done too badly in recent years. So if you are the Minister for both, the temptation is to shift resources from the latter to the former. However, if there are separate Ministers, others need to be involved in this conversation before any change can happen.

Perhaps a collective conversation would conclude that, yes, FE is underfunded but additional resources should come from somewhere other than HE. Perhaps the Ministers for FE and HE can combine forces on the principle that two heads are better than one and work together to persuade the Treasury of the need for a bigger budget for their whole department. Moreover, merging FE and HE in one brief would mean there is less time to liaise with other Ministers with whom you might otherwise work closely, like the Science Minister: in other words, removing one division might simply lead to a bigger one elsewhere.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the quest for joined-up government means building one huge government department that is in charge of everything

Taken to its logical conclusion, the quest for joined-up government means building one huge government department that is in charge of everything and with no inter-departmental boundaries to worry about. I assume most people would regard that as absurd and it would clearly be less democratic and less transparent than what we have, despite any current imperfections. Yet, to a lesser degree, the same risks being true every time two pre-existing sets of major responsibilities are merged together.

At a minimum, it is surely fair to say that the benefits of having one Minister rather than two for post-16 education, had it happened, would be much less clear cut than the general consensus supposes. For me, the issues are summed up by one former Secretary of State for Education, who is rumoured to have stomped around his Department asking officials, ‘Why exactly do we want joined-up Government?’

That is a very good question that we do not ask often enough.


  1. Paul Woodgates says:

    I would distinguish between joined-up policy, action and delivery on the one hand, and joined-up government organisational structures on the other. The first is surely desirable, the second is, at best, merely a means to an end.

    In the not too distant past we witnessed the absurdity of the DfE encouraging universities to recruit more overseas students while the Home Office tried to stop them through control of visas. I agree that the solution to that problem should not have been to merge the Universities ministerial brief with the Immigration ministerial brief – otherwise, as you say, Nick, you would end up with one super “Department for Everything”. But we do need a government that really does use the points of friction you mention to have the debate, consider the options and come to a conclusion that all arms of government then follow. When that is lacking (as it clearly was in the international students example) the absence of join-up becomes very damaging – confusing to the rest of us, wasteful of resources and destined to deliver failed policy.

  2. Michael Picken says:

    This is an article about England only of course, though as is typically the case, this is rarely acknowledged by organisations that have “UK” in their domain name. HEPI even purports to be “The UK‘s only independent think tank devoted to higher education” and describes itself as “We are UK-wide“.

    For the benefits of international and UK readers alike, it should perhaps be emphasised that education policy in the UK is a devolved matter and there are four government departmental bodies responsible for it … and four sets of ministerial appointments.

    So does size matter? The perennial question … because the departments responsible for FE and HE in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland think it’s perfectly possible to combine these responsibilities into a single ministerial portfolio.

    So the question perhaps should be: why would England think it is so different from the rest of the UK that it ought to separate FE from HE at governmental level?

    After all the macro economic framework is the same; in three of the four governments the curriculum and qualifications frameworks are the same; the welfare payments system is the same; the employment laws are the same; and so on.

    So the only thing that can matter that much is size.

    Politics could not possibly come into it … or could it?

  3. Richard walsh says:

    Joined up govt does not mean unified structures. Rather that separate debts working together. If we take access to education by non UK people post brexit this applies to all age groups. I was approached only today about a person from Switzerland who wants to do an exchange visit with a family in the UK and for their son who is 14 to be able to do 3 months schooling here to be reciprocated for the uk child in Switzerland. To do this you need a child student visa and you can only go to an independent school. As they are not wealthy it’s home schooling. Similar situations apply post erasmus for older students. Merging depts won’t help. But a joined up view on our relations to the outside world in respect of education and would. I suppose there is one already. If you have cash fine yes. If not hard luck. But not all would agree with that position.

  4. Harriet says:

    “FE is underfunded and that HE has not done too badly in recent years. So if you are the Minister for both, the temptation is to shift resources from the former to the latter” Shouldn’t this be “latter to the former”?

    Interesting view – although I’m not sure points of friction between departments necessarily result in better policy – this risks entrenched positions and who can shout the loudest/has more influence. Perhaps we need to hear more examples of how smart policy has been developed taking a wider range of concerns into account. As you say unless you are on the inside the government departments’ workings can seem like a black box.

  5. Nick Hillman says:

    Thank you, Harriet, for pointing out the typo, which I have now corrected.

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