Source: Policy Exchange/Flickr
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills may be abolished after the election, especially if the Conservatives stay in government, figures from leading thinktanks have predicted.
This could lead to further funding cuts for universities, as the most likely scenario after any closure of BIS would be a transfer of responsibility to the Department for Education – where, a conference heard, it would be unlikely to fare well against schools in the competition for funds.
Jonathan Simons (pictured), head of education at the right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange, told the Universities and National Public Affairs Forum on 29 January that higher education was an area that could get “traded off pretty quickly” in any potential coalition negotiations with “little thinking about what the consequences might be”.
A future administration could target it for what might be perceived as “pretty easy and hidden cuts”, he argued.
If a Conservative government wanted to protect funding for areas such as science and apprenticeships, Mr Simons continued, it was unclear if there would be enough money left in the BIS budget to keep the department viable.
“It is a distinct possibility that BIS will be abolished after the next election if the Tories are in office, at which point universities go to education,” Mr Simons told the event, which was organised by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
He added: “In a straight-up fight with schools, universities may find themselves in a difficult position.”
Mr Simons’ assessment was backed by Nick Pearce, director of the left-of-centre Institute for Public Policy Research, who said that there was a “significant likelihood” that the size of the BIS budget would not be large enough to “sustain it through the next spending round”.
“You have to put some [departments’] budgets together in order to make tenable a process of deficit reduction which otherwise, in some departments like BIS, isn’t possible to deliver,” he said.
Mr Pearce said that he was concerned about how the “fallout” from further cuts to university funding could be managed, as the Higher Education Funding Council for England had little power in the era of higher tuition fees to force through mergers of institutions.