Leader: They have made their stand, now they must deliver

June 15, 2001

Any management expert knows that mergers, demergers and acquisitions are among the toughest of business challenges. Merging companies, let alone universities, should be approached with all the caution of porcupines making love.

But our rulers see no need for subtlety when they remodel their political empires. For them, the creation of the Department for Education and Skills - not to mention the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - is the work of an afternoon. Quick work for organisations that deal with academics, teachers, the employed, the unemployed, the once employed and, in the shape of pupils and students, the not yet employed - in a word, pretty well the entire population.

The set-up will be a stern test of "joined-up government", a mantra of the first Blair administration, of which little has been heard lately. It has been replaced by "delivery", a major component of the job description of John Prescott in his new department-free role.

It is likely that the worlds of education, research and work will provide some of the biggest challenges to the delivery team. Everyone agrees that skills are the magic ingredient in short supply in the workforce. But deciding which skills are needed for the new-economy Britain promised by Labour is more difficult. Employers usually think in terms of immediate vacancies and have few ideas about their future workforce. But then demand for labour reflects rapid economic and technical change.

Despite its position in the new DFES, higher education will need strong links to the work department and to the Department of Trade and Industry, keeper of the science budget and of the Foresight machinery used to provide industry and Whitehall with wisdom on possible developments.

Lord Sainsbury's well-liked reign over science at the DTI is a rare survivor of the weekend's carnage of junior ministers. His approach to the job and the money he has had available have shot the fox of the once-vocal lobbyists for a Ministry of Science. Having a minister who is an enthusiast for his present rather than next portfolio has been an added bonus that almost, but not quite, makes the case for unelected politicians.

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