Leader: Into the arms of Mammon

The DIUS is no more, the latest sign of the Government's narrow focus on business interests at the academy's expense

June 11, 2009

The creation of a department that had "universities" in its title and a voice at the Cabinet table was warmly welcomed as evidence that higher education held a central position in the Prime Minister's vision for the nation's future. Now, 23 months later, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is no more. It has been merged with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to form the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, a name - and acronym (BIS) - that flaunts its commercial credentials and sees no need to mention universities, science or even education.

There have been widespread fears for some time about the corrupting effects of commerce on the academy: graduates have been encouraged by the Government to think not of the personal and civilising benefits of a university education, but only in terms of the extra cash they will earn. Ministers have made it clear what they think about lifelong learning, too: it is excellent - so long as it means you can do your job better.

With this move, the Government has gone the whole hog: it appears to have delivered higher education into the arms of Mammon, or at least into the hands of Lord Mandelson, the unelected Business Secretary and First Secretary. Its zeal for higher education supporting the pursuit of a knowledge-based economy has led to the creation of a department that takes its inspiration from entrepreneurial reality-TV shows.

On top of the backing for Peter Jones (Dragons' Den) and his National Skills Academy for Enterprise comes the fast-tracking to the House of Lords of Sir Alan Sugar (The Apprentice), so that he can advise the Government as the new "enterprise czar".

Yes, the sector wanted acknowledgement that further and higher education could lead the UK out of the economic doldrums, but via the creation of a more educated workforce and support for applied and blue-skies research, not a shopping list for industry.

Once again, the nation's strategic science base has missed out. As Phil Willis MP, chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, points out: "The opportunity has not been taken to move the Government Office for Science to the Cabinet Office. Science needs a stable home at the heart of government policy ... Any further diminution of our basic science capacity could prove disastrous for the nation."

Joined-up thinking has taken a hit, too. When the Department for Education and Skills was divided, many were unhappy that higher education and some further education had been placed in one department, and schools and the rest of further education in another. This latest move cements the separation.

It is sad that a Government that thinks it vital for universities to churn out graduates equipped with the skills industry needs does not believe it equally important for schools to produce students with the aptitude universities require. But the saddest thing of all is that a department that cost £7 million to set up has been dismantled 23 months later on a political whim, at most 11 months before a general election that's certain to bring more upheaval. Thanks to Lord Mandelson, universities will still have a Cabinet voice, but it is likely to speak only the language of business.


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