Continually changing ministers and endlessly rolling out initiatives do little but cause chaos in higher education
You'd think that a government that insisted that its priorities were "education, education, education" might take the Department for Education and Skills - formerly the Department for Education and Employment, formerly the Department for Education and Science - seriously enough to give the ministers who run it enough time to learn their jobs and then a bit more time to do them. And given the emphasis on getting 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds into some form of higher education, you'd think they might try to achieve some continuity in higher education policy by looking for some continuity in the junior ministers who look after higher education and lifelong learning.
Not a bit of it. The DfES seems to be used as a transit lounge, where junior ministers on their way up, down and sideways are parked for a few months before they head off for their next stopover. So, goodbye, Kim Howells, and hello, Bill Rammell. Mr Rammell's only detectable qualification for the position he now occupies is that, as MP for Harlow, he has shown up at events organised by the Harlow Campus of the Memorial University of Newfoundland. Otherwise, he has loyally supported the Government's anti-terrorism strategy as a junior minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Does it matter? Isn't policy really made and carried out by the Civil Service? Less than you might think. And Mr Rammell has many fish to fry, as minister not only for higher education but also for lifelong learning. That means his responsibilities include further education as well as higher education, employers' schemes, mid-career reskilling and so on. Call up the DfES website and you see in an instant how very small the Higher Education Directorate is compared with the Lifelong Learning Directorate. That poses an obvious problem. John Stuart Mill's advice to "centralise knowledge, decentralise power" can't be followed if there is nobody at the centre with time to think, brood and distinguish knowledge from guesswork.
In my book, the balance between higher education and lifelong learning is the right one; it's in further education, apprenticeships, reskilling and the rest that the hard lifting needs to be done. But it is also a source of weakness. Take the mess over tuition fees and part-time students. As everyone knows by now, part-time students cannot defer payment of tuition fees, whereas - as far too few school students and their parents seem to understand - full-time students work on the basis of "study now, pay later".
As everyone also knows, something like 40 per cent of those in higher education are part-timers. And as the management of the Open University and Birkbeck College, University of London, along with many other institutions are all too aware, the providers of part-time higher education are between a rock and a hard place. They can't afford to charge low fees or no fees, but their students can't afford to pay the higher fees upfront.
Was the Higher Education Directorate or the Lifelong Learning Directorate asleep at the switch or is the Government short of properly informed junior ministers? From the outside, it's impossible to tell, but it's not hard to see how it could happen; in any organisation, it's easy to believe your opposite number has the problem on her desk while she imagines it's on yours. If you have, as you are bound to have, a Civil Service department organised as a series of pyramidical structures with a director for x , y or z at the top, you are entirely at the mercy of your intergroup committees and, in the last resort, at the mercy of the interaction between a minister and his or her senior staff.
It's even worse if you are working for a government that is in more or less permanent election mode; neither ministers nor civil servants can be expected to have a clear sense of which of the endless rounds of initiatives should be taken seriously and which can be ignored as window-dressing intended to attract the electorate but not otherwise intended seriously. Throw in new Labour's penchant for fiddling with labels and management lines and it is no surprise that there is a certain amount of chaos; what's surprising is that there isn't more.
Which is to say that Mr Rammell may well be wishing he were back visiting Afghanistan on behalf of the FCO rather than sitting in the misnamed Sanctuary House. He's obviously got his work cut out in explaining how the top-up fee regime will work and teaching people with three As at A level how to calculate 9 per cent of £15,000. But since the new order will work only if there is a vast increase in cut-price higher education carried out in further education institutions, he can hardly avert his gaze from lifelong learning. To expect him to do all that knowing that his tenure is likely to be brief is asking a lot.
Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.