Leader: How ambitious will Denham's DIUS dare to be?

July 6, 2007

There cannot be many governments with a dedicated minister responsible for higher education in the Cabinet. And in John Denham - the new Secretary of State for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) - institutions have by all accounts an advocate who is not only well respected but also has some knowledge of the issues confronting the sector. Perhaps, as Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, is reported to have said, it would have been preferable to have science in the new department's title to underline its centrality. But for the first time since 1994, government responsibility for science has been reunited with the people who actually do it.

There are concerns that no single department has responsibility for education in the whole, with the Department for Children, Schools and Families covering 16-19 education - the crucial point of access to higher education. What that means for joined-up thinking on widening participation remains to be seen.

That aside, the most serious concerns for universities lie elsewhere - specifically in the department's remit to implement Lord Leitch's report. Leitch is, in 1066-and-all-that-speak, a thoroughly good thing. It has done more to raise awareness of this country's chronic skills deficit than any other piece of work in recent times. But it comes saddled with two large caveats for universities. The first is its reliance on employer-generated funding. Ethically, there can be few quibbles about asking those who will benefit from an educated workforce to cough up their fair share towards its costs. Practically, there is a problem: employer-funded training budgets are usually the first to fall victim to the corporate axe if trading conditions worsen or business priorities change. There is genuine concern that if that happens, universities committed to larger student intakes will be left holding the baby.

The second concern is more intrinsic and potentially more worrying: will a government department shaped by a remit to provide a skills-based workforce advance an agenda that is primarily tailored to plug business's short-term needs? If so, it would be a mistake.

It is perhaps less than generous at the outset of a new administration to reprise former Education Secretary Charles Clarke's ill-considered remarks questioning whether government should fund "medieval seekers after truth" - that is, those who see the traditional notion of a university as a place simply to pursue ideas. But his comments did suggest to many that new Labour is more interested in the utilitarian goals to which universities can be directed rather than knowledge for its own sake. The country, employers included, benefits from a workforce that has learnt to think for itself. That is the essential mission of our universities. To compromise it would be folly. In short, DIUS must be more than Leitch.

Happily, Gordon Brown's track record so far - and in particular the large increases he has sanctioned to the science budget - indicate that he understands that the value of knowledge does not lie solely in its application. In setting up his new department he explicitly acknowledged the value of "a world-class research base".

Most people in the higher education sector will welcome the establishment of a powerful government department under a respected minister that can act as its champion and that brings together science, innovation and skills. If nothing else, it signals how crucial higher education is to the Prime Minister's vision for Britain. But if the Government and DIUS want a star to shoot for, how about aiming to double the paltry 1.1 per cent of gross domestic product this country devotes to higher education? In a week in which the word "legacy" seemed to be on everyone's lips, could there be a better goal?

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