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Which Whitehall Department should be responsible for English universities? By Dave Phoenix

  • 29 June 2023
  • By Professor David Phoenix
  • This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Professor David Phoenix, the Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University.

The universities brief has never sat easily within government. For many years, English universities were notionally the responsibility of the Department for Education but were effectively regulated via funding incentives via the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

In 2007, they were moved to the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (subsumed within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2009), where they remained until 2016 when Theresa May moved them partially back to the Department of Education while keeping their research responsibilities within the new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

While this partial move back to the DfE recognised the importance of the sector to the country’s taught higher education needs it has become increasingly clear over the last seven years that the complexity of universities’ overall activity is not well understood or indeed a priority for DfE and those working within the Department therefore often seek to apply a schools mindset when it comes to regulation of what is just one aspect of their work. 

The Department’s focus is not on how universities could better foster innovation or train the next generation of researchers and academics. Instead, early-years, primary and secondary education dominate the Department’s agenda and schools take up more than two-thirds of their budget. The ‘back-to-work’ Budget could, for example, have been an opportunity for the Department to present universities to the Treasury as their key priority for addressing England’s skills needs given over 80% of employers trying to recruit struggled to find individuals with the relevant qualifications and skills last year. Instead, extending free childcare to encourage parents back to work emerged from the Chancellor’s speech as the Department’s political priority.

This focus by the Department on schools is understandable but this, coupled with a simplistic deconstruction of universities to focus on undergraduate-level study out of the wider university context, is likely to be increasingly damaging to the sector and so to the country’s future prosperity.

One could make the case that other Departments would be more ready to champion the role of universities if it was within their brief. And with the split of BEIS and the creation of three new Departments by Rishi Sunak earlier this year, the question of where universities should sit has once again raised its head.

Some have suggested that universities should move to the newly formed Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) – including Lord Willetts, former Universities Minister, who has written about this in a new paper for Policy Exchange.

Moving universities into DSIT would make sense for obvious reasons – innovation and technology are key drivers of economic growth, and universities are major contributors to this through their research and development activities. Universities would be better placed to receive support and funding for their research and could work more closely with industry partners to develop commercial applications for their research. As the Department responsible for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), putting universities here would provide greater visibility for the important contributions they make to science and technology – encouraging greater public support and enabling this Department to look at the wider skills chain required for innovation.

There is a strong case however, that the Department for Business and Trade – another Department formed from BEIS – could be a suitable location. Universities play a vital role in developing the skills and knowledge needed for the future workforce – it is estimated that between 24% and 28% of jobs require a bachelor degree. In the UK, businesses have largely adopted the role of a consumer rather than a contributor in our skills system (unlike, for example, in Germany). By placing universities here, they would be better placed to engage with industry and work together to co-design qualifications, ensuring the future workforce have the necessary skills and future growth.

But other Departments should also have an interest in what Universities can offer. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office could appreciate the importance of the sector’s soft power and better support international trade and research collaborations. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is well positioned to support universities’ civic mission for example and of course universities make a significant contribution to the workforce requirements of the Department for Health. 

Having a complex programme means there is no natural ‘home’ for universities. While it is positive that this Government seems willing to treat research and innovation with the seriousness it deserves, recent Department reshuffles have made the issue of silos more prominent. Whitehall fails to identify the correlation between investment in innovation and demand for higher-level skills: the Skills for Jobs White Paper, for example, contained no references to innovation and the need to drive up demand for higher-level skills regionally, and similarly the Innovation Strategy makes no mention of skills.

In the approach to next year’s general election, the temptation of short termism must be avoided and instead cross-departmental thinking must be pursued. The UK needs a technocratic approach to the future of skills, research and innovation and for universities to flourish it requires greater understanding of their contribution to society, the economy and international soft power which in turn requires greater communication between key departments. What is clear is that the deconstruction of what universities offer and the narrow focus of their current home is likely to limit the contribution they make and in the medium term the approach could further limit their own ability to innovate.

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1 comment

  1. Henry Miller says:

    While I take the point about the current issues of universities being the partial responsibility of the DfE and DSIT, all of the suggested departments would bring their own problems. For example, placing universities (or the internationalisation element of universities perhaps) under the FCO could lead to complications due to geopolitical factors, e.g. if Anglo-Chinese official relations decline this would likely impact UK HE links with China , including the lucrative recruitment of Chinese students. Similarly would placing universities under Business and Trade or fully under DSIT lead to a further emphasis on skills and universities economic contribution, or science, tech and innovation, and even more neglect of the humanities and social sciences, for instance?

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