Outside the box: shaping higher education policy beyond DfE

Over in the world of public health, the notion of “health in all policies” is a concept that is widely recognised and championed. Perhaps we should be thinking about higher education in the same way.

There are two sides to the “health in all policies” approach. The first is an understanding that specific public health issues like obesity and mental wellbeing are shaped by factors other than those immediately concerning health services and interventions. In the case of obesity it could be about education, availability of exercise facilities, regulation on alcohol consumption, the list goes on. And it works the other way too: when government considers key policy areas like housing or transport or the development of new industries, the implications for the health of people and communities must be the starting point. “Health in all policies” can be a powerful tool in arguing for or against what might be seemingly unrelated policies – increasing the minimum wage or introducing higher tax credits for the poor – on the basis that they have direct consequences for the health of people.

Connecting the dots

Taking this framework of thinking to higher education, it is hard to think of many policy areas outside the Department for Education where the sector doesn’t have a direct stake, or where policy making in other government departments would not be made stronger by considering what higher education has to offer to the shaping of issues.

The criticisms made about the recent international education strategy highlight the lack of a “higher education in all policies” approach. Many will recall the strategy was jointly released by the Department for Education and Department for Trade but where was the Home Office voice on this? International education is intrinsically linked with issues of immigration – the biggest reforms required to grow international students are in this very space and it is unfortunate that there was no visible endorsement from the Home Office.

The revised guidelines of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 introduced by Housing Minister Heather Wheeler have enormous implications for student living. As acknowledged also by Chris Skidmore, students are particularly vulnerable to the actions of rogue landlords. Strengthening tenant powers to allow students to hold their landlords accountable and to demand affordable and safe accommodation is an issue that is as important to leaders of higher education institutions as it is to urban planners and renter associations.

Beyond the Department for Education

Here at Wonkhe we run a daily scan of the Department for Education news page. It is our bread and butter to be across the next consultation, the next ministerial intervention, the next report on sector data. We are also regular readers of the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. But it is equally important to keep a close eye on the Home Office, where much of the thinking around the Prevent agenda is shaped. Likewise the Department of Health and Social Care, and its associated agency Public Health England recently conducted a significant review of the NHS workforce including graduates and students on placement.

To take one live example, the Home Office has commenced its consultation on the Online Harms White Paper, where it will seek feedback on the enforcement powers of an independent regulatory body and potential redress mechanisms for online users. Given the dearth of regulation around online safety in higher education, this is an opportunity for the sector to be on the front food in helping frame the appropriate safeguards that are needed within institutions.

Working smarter, not harder

Higher education policymaking has not only become more complex and confusing within the parameters of the Department for Education, but increasingly the solutions for the sector’s challenges involve connecting with the thinking of other government departments. It requires the sector to expand its scope of influence and relationships with key advisers and officials across all areas of government.

Yet it also provides an opportunity to be more discerning than we have been in the past – about which consultations are of the most value to participate in, proactively working to identify and resolve mixed messages between ministers on policy issues that cuts across sectors, and adding value to areas where higher education has deep and unique expertise.

Join us for a one day conference on universities’ interaction with the world of politics on 16 May.

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