Splitting chairs

October 20, 2016

On 12 October, Sir John Kingman appeared before the Science and Technology Committee to be questioned on the role of the interim chair of UK Research and Innovation, a post to which he had been appointed by George Osborne. “For such an important reform agenda, having a chair in post quickly will be extremely important to drive forward the new landscape,” wrote Jo Johnson of the chair of the committee on 16 May. Sir John was accompanied by Rebecca Endean, director of research and innovation transformation in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He explained that he was not a scientist but a Treasury civil servant. So the shaping of the UKRI in the key period until a permanent chair takes over from April 2018 seems likely to be under close government direction.

The same sense of urgency does not seem to attach to the appointment of even an interim chair for the Office for Students. The meetings of the Public Bills Committee considering amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill continued on 11 and 13 October after the break for party conferences. There was much discussion of the need for better clarity about what OfS was to look like and how it was to operate. During these deliberations, Jo Johnson said: “We want to preserve all the quality people who are doing good work at [the Higher Education Funding Council for England], so I hope that the transition will be fluid and that there will not be discontinuities that will disrupt the operation of the [teaching excellence framework] under Hefce and the operation of the TEF under the OfS. To a great extent, the very same people will be involved.”

It would be disturbing if the OfS proved to be Hefce by another name but with vastly greater powers and without that “buffer” role that has kept the funding council fundamentally independent of government.

There is a third appointment that is potentially even more important, and one not envisaged at all in the bill. The chair of the Science and Technology Committee wrote to the minister in June, to express a concern about the protection of the “beneficial link between teaching and research in universities”. “Crucially, we will need to know who will have responsibility for ensuring the health of the whole system, from individual disciplines through to our world-leading institutions.”

As things stand, the only candidate appears to be the minister himself, acting on behalf of not one but two secretaries of state.

G. R. Evans

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