Bring many minds to bear on policy

May 8, 1998

A year into the Labour administration there is still a sense of excitement for academics interested in public policy. It arises from a feeling that the government's agenda is not yet fully set, a feeling reinforced by yesterday's seminar at Downing Street (page 44). It is fun to be involved. It is also important that the government opens conduits for new ideas and exposes itself to robust and rigorous argument about possible policy options. Isolation is one of the hazards of power.

Downing Street needs access to a flow of ideas from outside the party and the government. It also needs access to ruthless critical analysis and snag-hunting. This was the job performed by the old Central Policy Review Staff set up by Lord Rothschild for Edward Heath. Mrs Thatcher's decision to abolish it in favour of a policy unit of like-minded cronies contributed greatly to her loss of touch.

The present Downing Street policy unit is too small to do the job. But that is not an argument for reinventing the CPRS. A separate think-tank glued shut by the rules of civil service discretion and official secrets legislation is no longer an appropriate model. The policy unit's decision to use instead academic seminars informed by wide canvassing of opinion in advance via the Internet is an interesting one. It deserves to become a regular fixture - though if it does it will be important that it has an ever-changing cast and that there is proper articulation with the government's real agenda.

Yesterday's seminar covered the full range of public policy, and academics will be involved with all aspects of the government's programme. But for higher education itself some strands will impinge more than others.

One of these is regional policy. How far will devolving power from Westminster go? Will regionalism catch fire within England, and what role should higher education take in fostering it? Our report on the universities of middle England reveals both opportunities, as Ray Cowell spells out (right), and difficulties. For instance, is this one region or two? There is an east-west division roughly along the line of the M1, where, 1,000 years ago, the Danelaw ran into the power of Mercia and in modern times eastern farming country merged into the metal-bashing heartlands, but the edges are fuzzy to vanishing point. Institutions will not want to be confined. It would be hard to create robust regional identities here.

A second, related issue is pay. How far does the government intend to take employment flexibility? Michael Bett (opposite) invites views on the future arrangements for negotiating pay and conditions for all higher education employees.

Everyone, in sending in views, will rightly consider where his or her own interest lies. But it is also worth asking a larger question: should higher education be treated in effect as a nationalised industry with vice-chancellors as the local plant managers and staff nationally employed like civil servants? The alternatives - continuation of the present "dog's breakfast" with old and new universities on different scales, terms and superannuation schemes, or some more locally differentiated system - look on the surface very unappealing. But are they a necessary price of the diversity everyone claims to be so keen to foster? Can a scheme be devised that is both fair and flexible?

Unintended consequences have a way of sandbagging the architects of public policy. Engaging academics in the debate before decisions are taken may just help to reduce that risk. May present moves to open up the process whereby policy is formed grow and flourish.

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