Alan Ryan

July 13, 2007

Whenever governments carve up Whitehall departments in the hope of greater effectiveness, words such as "deckchair" and " Titanic " spring to mind. Those of advanced years will recall Harold Wilson's creation of the Department of Economic Affairs in 1964, an outfit charged with promoting the white-hot technology that would institute a step-change in British productivity and all those other good things that Gordon - much like his predecessor George - Brown has pledged his utmost to achieve. The DEA was intended, among other things, to push up spending on research and development, and to pick out fledgling centres of excellence at which government money might be thrown to some purpose. The Treasury had the more traditional role of saying "no" to anything of the sort. The DEA was abolished; the Treasury survives.

In those days, the recently deceased Department for Education and Skills was the DES, the Department for Education and Science. Now we are halfway back there, with a department for what used to be thought of as education (keeping an eye on schools) detached from a department for science, innovation, skills, universities and the perennial search for the Holy Grail of a step-change in British productivity. To the question "Will the Holy Grail be found?" the answer is pretty obviously "No".

If it was going to show up under the impulsion of government policy, it would have shown up years ago. The British economy's resistance to attempts to alter the long-term, sustainable growth rate is one of the wonders of the social world. Inflation and disinflation, unemployment, technological change on a massive scale all seem to leave UK plc chugging along at about a 2.5 per cent long-run rate. When others are notching up 6 per cent, it looks sluggish; when Europe settles to less than 1.5 per cent, we boast. Amenable to bright wheezes, it isn't.

What might the creation of the new department for virtue and intelligence achieve? It certainly should do no harm to rescue the research councils from the (former) Department of Trade and Industry. The DTI always seemed an odd place to park institutions whose task was to promote blue-skies thinking, and it seemed even odder when the humanities got their own research council and it was duly parked alongside the science research councils. It ought also to allow for some more joined-up policymaking about the relative roles of Higher Education Funding Council for England funding and research council funding.

The downside is that the temptation to abolish the dual-support system will surely increase once both budgets are managed by the same civil servants. If I were David Eastwood, I'd wonder whether Hefce will survive the next election.

The change shouldn't make much difference to the relative poverty of the humanities; John Denham is less given to cheery philistinism than Charles Clarke, so we aren't likely to hear too many suggestions that the study of Sophocles is a threat to economic wellbeing. On the other hand, unless someone can persuade Gordon Brown that rapping in Latin is uniquely the way to seize underprivileged people's attention, new Labour's utilitarian instincts will ensure that researchers in the humanities will continue to eat the crumbs that fall from the rich medics' table. A difficulty is that private philanthropy does not offset public funding in quite the way one might hope. Rich men and women go to the opera but give more of their money to medicine. For obvious reasons, medicine is both vastly expensive and deeply attractive, so cultural philanthropy too often goes on showy projects rather than on paying for a few instructors in Greek.

Carving the department up on the basis that skills belong with higher education, science and innovation - and that all of that is a matter for the post-19 agenda - seems a bit odd. It leaves further education colleges stretched awkwardly across the gap, especially when it is the Government's ambition to have a lot of higher education delivered by further education institutions; and it places a concern for skills in the wrong place.

If we really want an improved workforce, it's the skills of the non-academic 14 to 19-year-olds we need to worry about. They may need some innovative policymaking applied to their education and training, but they don't particularly need high-tech skills. It's the fluent exercise of quite modest skills that the UK is so bad at - the familiar fact that explains the attractiveness of the UK economy to workers from the new European Union and the attractiveness of those workers to UK employers. And as to the oddity of urging universities to enter into partnerships with schools one week before splitting them apart in Whitehall...

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford University.

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