Theresa May is in the process of forming her new government, and is making big changes to the machinery of government at the same time. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is being merged with the Department for Energy and Climate Change, to become the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. As a result, universities are on the move to the Department for Education.
Many in the higher education sector have been uneasy about higher education being overseen by the BIS, ever since the department’s creation in 2009. Stefan Collini described the department’s title as ‘Orwellian’. To many, universities’ place alongside ‘UK PLC’ and away from the Department from Education, their home for many decades, has been symptomatic of the sector’s decline into instrumentalism.
So today’s announcement that universities along with skills are to be moved back into DfE might initially be welcomed by some. But research and science will be staying in BEIS, the new successor department. We also know that the new department will be lead by former Universities Minister Greg Clark, whilst Sajid Javid is off to be Communities and Local Government Secretary. Breaking up the family like this will be unpopular with vice chancellors who will now need to lobby two departments on overlapping issues. It also separates universities from the department with responsibility for infrastructure, growth and industry and takes HE policy further away from the industrial policy ‘action’ at home, and limits universities to some of the exposure to Britain’s international trade links that BIS used to pursue.
We know that the new Secretary of State for DfE will be Justine Greening, formerly the International Development Secretary. We do not yet know whether Jo Johnson will be continuing as Universities Minister from within the DfE or whether a new minister for research and science will be appointed within BEIS.
The government says that “The Department for Education will take on responsibility for Higher and Further Education policy, apprenticeships and wider skills policy from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Bringing these responsibilities together will mean that the Government can take a comprehensive, end-to-end view of skills and education, supporting people from early years through to postgraduate study and work.”
Civil servants responsible for universities at BIS are being transferred to DfE.
The Higher Education and Research Bill is scheduled for a second reading in Parliament on Tuesday next week – and it now looks set to have two departments responsible for it rather than one. However the government has indicated that the reforms will press ahead, listing DfE’s new priorities as including “reforming the Higher Education sector to boost competition and continue to improve the quality of education that students receive”. They also say that reforms to apprenticeships will now be taken up by the beefed up DfE.
The Bill’s proposed divide between the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation now looks quite prescient but teaching and research policy looks set for a much harder split than had been anticipated.
Updates as we get them.