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Not dead but stunned: HE policy in the May government

The last few days has changed how universities and research sit in Whitehall and yet the government ploughs on with its reforms to HE. Andy Westwood assesses the new state of the nation.
This article is more than 5 years old

Andy Westwood is Vice Dean for Social Responsibility in the Faculty of Humanities and Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester

The HE & Research Bill is not dead. It has not ceased to be. It hasn’t run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. The HE Bill IS not AN EX-PARROT!! Jo Johnson – it’s lead author and champion remains in post too – helpful given that the Bill is getting its second reading on Tuesday. Business pretty much as usual then?

Not quite. Almost everything that can change around Johnson and the Bill is changing. First, of course, there is Brexit. The cause of almost all of the changes and the dominant theme of everything that will happen in what remains of this Parliament. Johnson, together with most in universities, will desperately want to reassure students, staff and partners. While we remain a member of the EU, he can do that. Beyond that, he cannot. Everything depends on the deal and its timetable. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ as Theresa May repeats. But we don’t know what it means or when it will happen.

Uncertainty will affect more than universities. Most significantly it will alter the basis of our wider financial and economic forecasts. The OBR will have a devil of a job, and it will be politicised like never before. But it seems hard not to envisage a short to medium term where there is less money for the government to spend and a longer list of priorities to spend it on. Referendum voters of both camps will wish to remind May and her ‘Leave’ colleagues of promises to send money on the NHS and elsewhere. Science was somewhere on the list, if not on the side of any buses. And while the new Chancellor Philip Hammond has pledged not to deliver Osborne’s Emergency Budget, he will have to deliver something in the Autumn and with less money to spend. Worse he will have to revisit last year’s Spending Review because that allocated future tax receipts that might not exist to spending that might no longer be a priority. Think about that for a moment.

Jo Johnson (and the HE Bill) also now finds himself with two new masters in two new departments. Whitehall has been drastically redrawn by Theresa May. Reorganising resources and jobs to deliver Brexit is understandable. But she has also chosen to abolish or drastically reorganise a number of other departments too. DECC is gone. DFE has suddenly become a lot bigger, and BIS has become BEIS. Getting Bills through this Parliament has not been easy. Normally that’s been because of difficulties and opposition in the House of Lords. But given that the government’s majority in the House of Commons is only just in double digits, the new PM may come to regret both the scale and manner of her reshuffle.

Like the Bill, we wondered out loud whether BIS might survive. By the end of last week, we realised it had not shuffled off its mortal coil. It had only been resting or pining for the Norwegian Fjords (or at least their EEA model). But ‘Voom!’ Not only was BIS not deceased, even after losing bits of higher education and trade, but it had also gained industrial strategy and energy. The equivalent of putting 4 million volts through it? It is now BEIS, which is hard to say, but is something closely resembling the DTI circa 1992. Most will be worried that the rest of higher education has shuffled off back to DfE – tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk?

Fortunately, it’s not very far from Victoria St to Sanctuary Buildings. Less than a hundred yards as the parrot flies but a chasm in overall direction and oversight. The HE White Paper’s separation of teaching and research into OFS and UKRI has now been reinforced by two separate departments and two separate secretarIes of state. Vice chancellors may want to register a complaint.

Justine Greening and Greg Clark will be representing universities and science in the Cabinet. We know at least one of them pretty well. Just over a year ago Clark was the minister for higher education and science – and also space and time – and he’s likely back in the same office. Does it matter? Science and research may be more likely to be ring-fenced in BEIS than in DFE. But BEIS will be quite small in resource terms – and will need strong powers of persuasion if it wants to convince other departments or business – as well as vice chancellors – to adopt a meaningful industrial strategy. It may also find itself towards the back of the queue for any new resources. Getting UKRI up and running so that John Kingman can make these arguments within government will be important.

Both colleges and universities should be worried that in schools there are some pretty big cost pressures – on capital and on spending per pupil. Demography is quantifiably different there. There are booming numbers of 4 and 11-year-olds but until they grow up at least, it’s the opposite story for 18-year-olds. That’s good news for universities in the long term but not in the short. Since Robbins, we’ve worried about being overshadowed by schools. The coherence of putting education back together may seem good news for some but how do we feel about the same coherence when applied to inspection – Ofsted and Ofstud – or to outreach and teaching subsidies?

The next four years will involve an awful lot of restructuring and readjustment. That was already quite challenging just with OFS and UKRI but the reorganisation of their host departments, and new ministers has significantly increased the degree of difficulty. The rapid dispatch of Gove, Morgan, Letwin, Osborne et al. will have faded long into political folklore while officials and the rest of us are still working out who sits where and exactly which departments are responsible for agencies and services that few people have ever heard of. It’s a good job we haven’t got anything else to do…

Parliamentary business will carry on as before. Come Tuesday morning it’s all going to resume with the second reading of the Bill. We should be grateful that both Jo Johnson and Gordon Marsden – Labour’s HE spokesman – remain in their jobs. Even if both will feel that their roles have changed fundamentally. Anyone else on either side might have had to be nailed to the perch.

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