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Why ‘talking tertiary’ must not come at the expense of our world-leading research credentials

  • 21 November 2023
  • By Diana Beech
  • This blog has been kindly contributed by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher – the voice of higher education in London, representing over 50 universities and higher education institutions across the capital. Diana was previously Policy Advisor to three Ministers the last time Universities, Science, Research and Innovation were in the same portfolio. You can follow London Higher and Diana on X (formerly Twitter) via @LondonHigher and @dianajbeech.

As we edge ever closer to the next General Election, it cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that politicians from both major parties are starting to ‘talk tertiary’ in a bid to fix Britain’s growing skills shortages and ensure people receive appropriate education and training to unlock meaningful careers within key sectors and industries. There is clearly merit in developing comprehensive, industry-ready training pathways through further and higher education, as per the model currently being employed by the LSBU Group in south London, but without careful policy management, the tertiary model risks neglecting the part of the knowledge economy in which we are already excelling – namely research and innovation.

As CEO of London Higher, I am conscious that our organisation has the privilege of representing a rich diversity of members not even shared by Universities UK (UUK). These include small, specialist, postgraduate-only higher education institutions, such as The Institute for Cancer Research and the Royal College of Art, as well are large, multi-faculty, research-intensive universities such as UCL, Queen Mary or King’s College London – all of which produce world-leading research in their relevant disciplines and help maintain the UK’s global competitiveness when it comes to trailblazing innovations and scientific or creativity-driven success. It is therefore in all our interests that we move forwards with a policy framework for skills in England that keeps sight of all the interconnected components of our national knowledge economy and enables the UK’s excellent research-performing institutions to continue to thrive.

Of course, there is no easy way to make sense of the complexity of the world around us, which also makes governing a challenge. The repeated tweaks and additions to Whitehall departments over the years clearly reflect changing government priorities in response to some of these complexities, as well as legal and constitutional responsibilities. When it comes to the activities of higher education institutions, the UK Government only has the power to legislate over the educational activities of providers in England, given powers over education are devolved to the relevant administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yet, Westminster retains responsibility for science, research and innovation UK-wide. This mismatch of powers has to a large degree, contributed to the current Whitehall departmental alignment, which sees the non-research elements of England’s universities and higher education institutions fall under the jurisdiction of the Department for Education (DfE) and the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) ruling over UK-wide research strategy and its implementation.

While this Ministry of Government formation may make sense in terms of giving DfE oversight of education in England from nursery to university, the formal separation of teaching and research, essential to the higher education ecosystem, exposes not just universities but the entire nation to the risk of, at best, inconsistency and, at worst, incompatibility between different departmental policy directions. Reassurances from ministers that they talk regularly to their counterparts in other departments are all well and good, but in practice the personal ambition of ministers and officials to show they are delivering on their specific remits will always win out in the race for promotion. The blunt separation of departmental responsibilities also prevents even the best-willed ministers and civil servants from devoting time and space to the joined-up thinking that is necessary to ensure a harmonious plan.

Although it was far from perfect when I worked in Whitehall for three ministers, who at that time shared a joined-up brief for Universities and Science – not least given the continuous need to balance England-only versus UK-wide responsibilities during the Brexit negotiations – that structure at least meant there was one clear touchpoint in government for higher education institutions, as well as sufficient capacity around ministers to ensure join-up across the piece. Today, by contrast, that safety net has gone, and the emerging chasm couldn’t be clearer between the “science superpower” ambitions of DSIT and DfE’s push for a tertiary education framework, seemingly shared across the political divide.

Looking at it from DfE’s perspective, it is easy to see why the push for tertiary thinking has come about, given it brings together the full suite of post-18 education providers for which it has responsibility. However, this is also when we can see the Department falling into the trap of thinking of these institutions too simplistically as ‘big schools’ because it is not instantly clear how post-graduate research institutions fit into the picture. Ever since the new regulatory landscape created by the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) came into being, these institutions have always been in a policy ‘no man’s land’ in DfE – registered by the sector regulator the Office for Students (OfS) but exempt from both its main quality enhancement framework, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), and its Access and Participation agenda. Similarly, although DfE oversees the roll-out of Master’s and doctoral loans, it is far more likely that postgraduate students at our world-leading research-performing institutions are funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and other major research funders and charities, either sponsored by or accountable to DSIT.

With postgraduate-only and predominantly research-orientated higher education institutions already falling down the cracks between government departments, policymakers and visionaries need to ensure any moves towards a tertiary framework do not push our world-leading research institutions into policy homelessness or, worse, submit them to new forms of funding, regulation and policy developments which could jeopardise their excellent research credentials. The recent pledge to replace A-Levels and T-Levels with the ‘Advanced British Standard’ – ironically only in England – is a case in point because a serious cross-departmental impact assessment and evaluation will be needed to ascertain the extent to which reducing pre-18 specialization could affect the quality and standards of future research.

While I am all for the development of better post-18 skills pathways and am proud to see London leading the way with new models of delivery, we need to make sure that these do not stop short of research and innovation. We also need to ensure that other departments have a say in their formation – else our search for skills could come at the ultimate cost of our global competitiveness in science, creativity and research.

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1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    I would like to think all is well in the world of University UK research ” …. all of which produce world-leading research in their relevant disciplines and help maintain the UK’s global competitiveness when it comes to trailblazing innovations and scientific or creativity-driven success.”

    The problem is, that despite all the research and awards UK productivity has been going down in the last 10 years, instead of up.

    How many years will it take for UK Excellence in Research to have a positive impact?

    I accept the successful work in medicine for vaccines for Covid and the use of AI in diagnosis and medication support but where is the bottom line evidence for economic improvement?

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