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The pros and cons of moving universities to DfE

As universities are on the move from BIS to DfE, we weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of move for the higher education sector.
This article is more than 7 years old

David Morris is the Vice Chancellor's policy adviser at the University of Greenwich and former Deputy Editor of Wonkhe. He writes in a personal capacity.

Universities are moving to the Department for Education in a shakeup of Whitehall under new Prime Minister Theresa May. Universities will have mixed feelings about the change which harks back to how things used to be for decades before the creation of DIUS and then BIS – both of which are now obsolete.


– DfE has a notorious reputation for being a very poorly managed department, as illustrated in a recent report by the BBC’s Chris Cook. The department has been reprimanded by the National Audit Office for poor management in the funding of academies, and for publishing its 2014-15 accounts nine months late. Universities may recall a recent foul up in the management of recruiting PGCEs. The department has failed to manage its budgets and so invoked the ire of the Treasury, leaving it with diminished political capital in Whitehall.

– Dealing with two departments, one for teaching, and one for research will split the sector’s lobbying resources and risks making them less effective. Within DfE, big battles will commence between universities, schools and FE colleges for funding and attention. This will leave Greening, as Secretary of State and arbiter, in a very powerful position. It remains to be seen if Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, will continue to leave the schools budget ring-fenced from cuts; this policy has hitherto decimated DfE’s non-schools spending.

– DfE will have much less traction with the Home Office when it comes to battles over international students. Higher education’s role in BIS cemented its place as an export industry and arm of British soft power, and May’s refusal to loosen restrictions on international students suggested she does see this as important. With new Home Secretary Amber Rudd as a key ally, the prospect of students being taken out of net migration looks even less likely.

– Moving to DfE risks isolating universities in Brexit negotiations, in which BIS was anticipated to be a key player and which the new Department of Business, Energy and Industry will likely be heavily involved.

– Within BIS, universities were able to position themselves, along with science and research, as an economic investment rather than a cost to government. Other parts of education are firmly viewed as a cost. Indeed, it is the government’s third-largest single expense. Universities will have to hope that Whitehall has warmed to non-economic benefits of education spending, which may be emphasised more by DfE.

– DfE is much more used to a culture of direct oversight and management of schools and child services, via Ofsted, in stark contrast to the light-touch self-regulation that the higher education sector has fought so hard to defend.

– Carrying out the transition from BIS to DfE, at a time of massive instability, and a Bill passing through Parliament looks a likely recipe for chaos. The Bill will now have two departmental sponsors, and it will be interesting to see which will take the lead, particularly if Johnson does not continue as universities minister.


If all that sounds a little bleak, there are some possible advantages to the move, but all rest on many assumptions and caveats while we wait to see how it all plays out.

– Widening participation policy has always suffered from a lack of national coordination between schools and universities. Some, such as Labour MP Wes Streeting, have advocated shifting more WP funding from universities towards schools, to better support students from disadvantaged backgrounds attain higher grades and be more likely to apply for higher education.

– Apprenticeship expansion, which looks set to continue under the new government, will also benefit from better coordination between the higher, further and schools sectors. Degree apprenticeships are set to expand over the next few years, and having a single department and oversight body will help bring some coherence to the new pathways.

– Despite the aforementioned mishaps by DfE overseeing PGCE recruitment, there is now an opportunity to bring some coherence to teacher training policy. Teacher recruitment is facing a crisis and will need urgent coordination between schools and universities to plug the gap.

– A Level and GCSE reforms are currently underway and are about to throw a lot of confusion into university admissions. The reforms have been overseen by DfE, and the higher education sector might improve its understanding of the qualifications by coming under the department’s umbrella.

– DfE has a much larger budget than BIS, and so will be better placed to soak up any ongoing instability in the value of the student loan book and its repayments. Gordon McKenzie, chief executive of GuildHE and a former BIS official, has suggested that this new wiggle-room might be a bonus. We wish we could have been a fly on the wall when the complexities of student loans were explained to the new Secretary of State and Permanent Secretary.

– The government’s press release announcing the change gives a hint, if only a hint, that the new DfE will have a particular focus on lifelong learning. The release states the department will take an “end-to-end view of skills and education, supporting people from early years through to postgraduate study and work”. Perhaps, just perhaps, lifelong learning will get proper consideration alongside education ‘in the round’.

3 responses to “The pros and cons of moving universities to DfE

  1. Yes, those disadvantages do seem a little bleak.

    I particularly laughed at your notion that DfE has a culture of direct oversight and management ‘in stark contrast to the light touch self-regulation’ of the HE sector. Ha! The entire pattern of BIS oversight can be summed up as ‘give less money, take more control’. Universities have been jumping to ever more insistent state demands for years.

    It will be interesting to see whether Johnson continues as HE Minister. Let’s hope not. His White Paper is the finest example yet of harmful and unnecessary state micro-management.

  2. Completely decontextualised, but worth noting all the same that practically every other HE system in Europe is run out of their education ministries, albeit often in combination with science.

    1. That’s true. But the separation has been one factor (among several) in the performance gap that has opened between UK and mainland European universities.

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