By closing its Sheffield office, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills could be losing a “centre of excellence” in higher education policymaking and jeopardising the prospects of the Green Paper along with David Cameron’s goals on access.
That is the picture painted by critics of BIS’ move to close down its building in the city, which puts at risk about 250 jobs, including those of about 40 staff working on higher education.
The move has been presented as undermining the government's “northern powerhouse” rhetoric in its relocation of jobs to London – and also has a potential impact on higher education.
Nick Hillman, formerly special adviser to David Willetts in his time as universities and science minister, has already described the move as “a genuine tragedy for good public policymaking”. The Sheffield civil servants “hold BIS’ institutional memory on HE and often know more than the policymakers who are nominally closer to the centre of power”, the Higher Education Policy Institute director has written.
And the BIS group of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has told me more about what they see as the potential impact on higher education.
There are currently 38 staff working on higher education (although about five are already scheduled to leave on voluntary severance deals at the end of March).
According to the PCS branch, “almost all” are working on the Green Paper consultation.
I was at a Universities UK conference recently where Polly Payne, joint director of higher education in BIS, emphasised the volume of responses to the Green Paper and the length of time that it would take to get through them.
If Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, wants to get out a consultation response before a possible European Union referendum later this year, then the Sheffield closure won’t help.
Part of the teaching excellence framework team is also based in Sheffield, as are the widening participation team and those working on “market entry” in higher education – all key priorities in the Green Paper.
The prime minister has set out two goals in the area of widening participation: doubling the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education from 2009 levels by 2020, and increasing the number of black and minority ethnic students going to university by 20 per cent by 2020.
If the PCS branch is to be believed, then there is a potential impact on these goals.
At last week’s BIS select committee hearing on the work of the department, Paul Blomfield, the Labour MP for Sheffield Central, called the Sheffield office a “centre of excellence for further and higher education policy”.
Staff will have to reapply for their jobs and no packages for relocation to London are being offered, he added.
Blomfield said that staff had been told by a senior BIS official that the move will not save any money.
Indeed, Martin Donnelly, the BIS permanent secretary, wasn’t able to cite a savings figure arising specifically from the Sheffield closure. He did, though, say that it “made sense” to have core policy staff “working next to ministers” in London.
Sajid Javid, the business secretary, told the committee that it was part of a move to cut down the number of BIS sites from about 80 to about a tenth of that.
The move should be seen in the context of deep spending cuts to the BIS budget since 2010, which have brought rapid turnover in the department’s senior staff and the exit of several experienced figures.
Javid is often seen as a George Osborne protégé keen to do the job on cuts and then make progress up the career ladder. But getting rid of a “centre of excellence” in higher education policy might have consequences for Johnson’s attempts to do a job for Cameron.