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What my experience in Whitehall taught me about higher education policy

  • 3 May 2022
  • By Diana Beech

This guest blog has been kindly written by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher and former Policy Adviser to the last three Universities and Science Ministers. Diana is on Twitter @dianajbeech.

It is a summary of remarks made as part of a panel discussion at the HEPI University Partners’ Policy Briefing Day, held on Wednesday 27 April 2022 at Broadway House, London.

Working in Whitehall can teach you a lot about how policy is made. But, clearly, not everyone will ever get the opportunity to experience it. That is why I’m keen to share these five key points which I learned during my time in private office:

Competing priorities

The first point, while seemingly obvious, is one that we can easily forget as we become absorbed in the world of higher education – and that is that the delivery and implementation of higher education policy will always be subject to wider goings-on in government.

I learned that lesson the hard way having served during one of the most tumultuous periods in recent UK politics as Theresa May’s Government attempted to get the Brexit withdrawal agreement through parliament. The constant restrictions on MPs’ time from three-line whips and late-night debates meant that office time with ministers became increasingly curtailed and the political bandwidth to work on other policy issues simply was not there.

Although that period of disruption can now hopefully be resigned to the history books, it is still worth being alert to the fact that, as external challenges around us rise, it is highly likely that higher education policy may well end up having to take a backseat at times.

Outside engagement

My second point has to do with the civil servants, who are chiefly responsible for designing and delivering government policy. Although clearly deserving of a tribute for their hard work and dedication, career civil servants are by and large neither of nor from the sector. That is why it is vital we take every opportunity we can to engage with them and ensure that policy is not being made in isolation – be it by partaking in meetings or consultations.

However, using these occasions only to complain at officials is not going to cut it. As people who are rewarded in their careers for delivering on government ambitions, officials will always appreciate alternative suggestions and solutions that are going to enable them to do their job effectively, not scupper their plans completely.

Government hierarchy

The third lesson I learned during my time in Whitehall is that, while higher education policy should fall firmly in the remit of the Department for Education, this will always be trumped by departmental hierarchy. So, if No. 10 or Treasury decide that they need to make policy tweaks in the higher education space, then it is safe to assume it is probably going to happen.

In my day, a good example of this was the Augar Review which progressed under No. 10’s instruction over and above the work of the Universities Minister’s office. Today, the same is likely true of the higher education reform proposals, which are currently open for consultation until 6th May 2022.

If it is to be believed that Treasury is supportive of measures to reimpose student number controls or implement some form of minimum eligibility requirements as a means of saving costs on higher education, then it is absolutely vital the sector engages seriously with the consultation at hand and concentrates on providing robust arguments and supporting evidence to the contrary.

Finding friends

Building on from this, my fourth point is that not all pressure coming from the centre of government is necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the stars will align and there will be someone actively advocating for policy to help our sector. Again, a good example of this from my day was the big push that Dominic Cummings brought with him to Downing Street for blue-skies research and the UK’s “science superpower” ambitions. However, his short tenure and the noticeable absence of ‘big ticket’ science policies since his departure should caution us all away from attaching too much weight to individuals to push policy through. What we need to be doing instead is building up supporters across government and across wider society to ensure higher education and science remain political priorities and sectors which this government wants to protect and nurture.

Lack of join-up

My fifth and final point is that, despite acknowledging the Whitehall hierarchy, it should not be assumed that the different government departments actually talk to each other – or, indeed, that different bits of the same department regularly talk to each other. 

Of course, if a major cross-governmental policy is being developed, such the Levelling Up White Paper, then that will go through a formal “write-round” process in which all departments will be notified of the policy in advance and have chance to feed into it. But do not assume dialogue like that happens as standard.

That is why, as a sector, we need to find ways to bring about this join-up, either by speaking to officials from all relevant departments (which is good practice anyway) or by using opportunities like consultations to point out how proposals from one department may be undermining or working against those from another. While there may not be any guarantees that government will act on these inconsistencies, we can at least see it as our responsibility to make them clear. 

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