Leader: Reading the DfES runes

June 2, 2006

The decision on how to replace Sir Alan Wilson as the Department for Education and Skills' most senior official responsible for higher education will have the Kremlin watchers out in force. Creating a directorate and upgrading the post from the Civil Service backwater it was perceived to be was designed to send a message to universities and colleges that the DfES had a genuine interest - and a role to play - beyond schools. A failure to recruit another vice-chancellor (or candidate of similar standing) will naturally be interpreted as confirmation that government education policy is overwhelmingly about schools after all.

Nonetheless, it will be tempting to follow this course, especially at a time when the DfES is cutting hundreds of jobs. For all of Sir Alan's diplomatic skills, it has not been obvious that there is room for public figures both at the department and at the Higher Education Funding Council for England. And it may not be easy to attract a top-calibre candidate from higher education - the field was not wide when Sir Alan was appointed and the possibility of a change of Government within three years may add to the reluctance of those in senior posts to put themselves forward. Higher education is sufficiently important (and expensive) to warrant a place on the board of the department, but will it keep it?

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