A week before Tony Blair stepped down as prime minister in 2007, I took a phone call from one of Gordon Brown’s advisers. I was told that universities were being removed from the Department for Education and Skills, where I was permanent secretary.
When I asked if this was up for negotiation, all I got was a derisory snort. In addition, I was instructed to make preparations but no one else in the department could be told. The fact that we effected the change so smoothly indicates how little attention I paid to that bit of advice.
Yet, less than a decade later, we have universities returning to what is now the Department for Education. I suspect that my Whitehall successors would have been lucky to have had a day’s notice.
It was to David Cameron’s credit that he didn’t engage much in what insiders call MOG – machinery of government – changes. It was a common pastime in both the Blair and Brown administrations, and often diverted officials’ – and, to some extent, ministers’ – attention for too long.
But at least new prime minister Theresa May has followed the counsel that I recall giving the Conservatives’ then education spokesman, Michael Gove, in the run-up to the 2010 election: if you are going to make MOG changes, do it on day one of a new government.
I was sorry to lose universities (as well as further education and skills) but, of course, the world kept turning and the same will be true now. One helpful starting point is Jo Johnson remaining as the lead minister for universities and science, straddling the DfE and the recast Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He is respected across higher education and will provide continuity when so much else is changing.
Being a “joint” minister is not straightforward though. He will have to work hard to ensure that there is effective coordination of policy across teaching, research, innovation and knowledge transfer: something that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills struggled with at times (as did the DfES in my day).
In England, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has played a vital role on that score, and this brings into even sharper relief the split proposed in the Higher Education and Research Bill between the Office for Students and UK Research and Innovation. Ministers should take the opportunity to insert a new clause into the bill requiring the OfS and UKRI to coordinate and join up their strategy development.
From the point of view of universities and their representative organisations, working across a number of different government departments is not that unusual. The Home Office, the Department of Health and the Treasury, to name but three, will continue to figure large in our thinking. To put it even more positively, the fact that higher education straddles so many departments is testament to our wide reach. No single department could accommodate all our interests, so the onus is on us to engage.
It is the upside of the changes that we should now seek to exploit. First, there is an opportunity to think in a more coordinated way about universities’ contribution to skills development. For too long, we have been seen to be marginal and, indeed, in a zero-sum game with further education. Now there is an opportunity to cement higher education’s role in delivering high-level skills, in partnership with further education and employers.
Second, progress on the prime minister’s social mobility agenda should be possible. Everything from data sharing to funding effective interventions across sectors should be an early priority. The fact that the education secretary, Justine Greening, is also minister for women and equalities will ensure those issues remain high up the agenda in universities too.
Third, initiatives to boost the study of science and other vulnerable subjects should be seen as a continuum from school through to university. Might we also hope that the effect on universities will no longer be an afterthought when changes are made to the curriculum and assessment in schools?
Fourth, there is now room for a sensible discussion about initial teacher education. It always felt as if ministers and officials at BIS were uncomfortable with the DfE obsession with cutting universities out of the picture, but they had no locus on the issue. Time for a serious rethink? Greening won’t want her term to be dominated by teacher shortages.
To all this, we have to add Brexit. Johnson will need support from a number of secretaries of state to ensure that the various concerns of universities are properly “owned” in the forthcoming negotiations.
At worse, negotiating a secure settlement for higher education could be split across four or five departments. So having Johnson Senior – foreign secretary Boris – broadcast abroad that UK higher education is still open for business would not go amiss.
These are turbulent times, which will need skilled handling. Perhaps the “experts” so derided during the Brexit campaign will soon be back in fashion after all.
Sir David Bell is vice-chancellor of the University of Reading and was permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills and its subsequent incarnations between 2006 and 2012.