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Universities don’t need to be eaten up by the Education Department

Jonathan Simons of Policy Exchange argues that universities actually stand to do quite well from their move to the Department for Education - if they play their cards right.
This article is more than 4 years old

Jonathan is Director of Education at Public First

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Here’s the thing I find irritating about bicycles. They’re neither one thing nor the other. If you let them ride on pavements, they’re a menace to pedestrians because they’re too big, and they dominate the space. Force them to ride on the road, and they suddenly become smaller, at risk from cars. In other words, there’s no good place to put them.

Universities are the bicycles of Whitehall.

For the last nine years, universities have been the biggest fish in a couple of small ponds – firstly under DIUS, and then since 2009 in BIS. During this time, they have undoubtedly thrived in the Whitehall game of power politics, with a succession of junior Ministers and Secretaries of State who (mostly) cared passionately about higher education and defended universities against the marauding Treasury and the poor old runt of the litter that is FE.

But as of today, they will return to their previous home of the Department for Education. One of the most fervently pro-EU parts of government and society more generally, cast into another organisational shuffle in order to facilitate, amongst other things, the creation of two Brexit departments. Oh, the irony.

No reshuffle conversation has been complete in the last six years or so without some idle speculation as to whether such a move would happen. Several people, including me, have been burnt on this before – confidently predicting in both 2010 and 2015 that the move of universities back to DfE would take place. Irony number 2, I don’t think anyone especially saw this move happening today.

The advantages and disadvantages of the move have been extensively covered elsewhere on Wonkhe. The biggest disadvantage relates to this bicycle syndrome – that universities now risk being booted off the pavement and crushed under the cars of schools policy. As Wes Streeting MP pointed out today, the previous big argument in favour of a merger, which is that universities would benefit from school underspending, now looks to be reversed.

I wanted, however, to make two arguments in favour of the move, purely from a Whitehall perspective. The first is, that despite the best efforts of some policymakers to require universities to give up a little cash in the service of broader public policy, it’s actually very difficult to do. Only about a third of a typical HEIs income comes from the state, in a way that is addressable by deficit hawks or would-be redistributors – about £5bn from funding body grants and about the same again from research councils. The rest comes from tuition fees, and other income including from endowments, commercial contracts, philanthropy, and the like.

In public finance terms, this is non-cashable – i.e., you can’t (without changing the law) take this away from universities and reallocate it to schools, or FE, or childcare, or anything else. That’s still £10bn available for picking at (and DfE certainly will in some areas). But wider political pressures to keep that money in HE, which covers the science ring-fence, top ups for expensive subjects and the like, means in practice the vast bulk of that is also untouchable So there shouldn’t be any real financial worry for universities on that score.

The second argument is that making big departments work for the disparate areas they represent depends less on the pure political power of each sub-sector (though that does matter too – ask anyone who has worked in early years or youth policy in DfE the last six years) and more about the way in which the department is set up internally.

If a junior minister is powerful, the sector they represent will do well. So a lot depends on whether Jo Johnson moves across. Nick Boles, of course, has gone, so FE will have a new junior minister. It’s probable that at least one of the two schools junior ministers (one of whom, Sam Gyimah, also covers childcare) will also go. And Justine Greening is a new SoS with no experience in education – schools, or HE. That means universities potentially start from a strong position at ministerial level (and of course, they will have the first Bill coming out of the new Department, which means they will have the immediate focus of the Secretary of State).

Similarly, the DfE Permanent Secretary is new, one of the two Schools Directors-General has just departed for the Cabinet Office, and the hugely influential (and schools centric) Director of Strategy has been dragooned into the new Brexit Department. Again, depending on who moves from BIS to DfE at a senior official level, this could mean that universities have some experienced and senior advocates inside the department from day one.

There are, according to Katie Melua, 9 million bicycles in Beijing. There are 23,000 schools, and only 106 universities in England. But although universities are now riding on the road, they’re looking pretty steady from the start.

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