Clout of business department will boost sector, committee head says

But higher education will not get dedicated parliamentary scrutiny. Rebecca Attwood writes

July 9, 2009

Universities could get a better deal from the Government now that they share a Whitehall department with business, according to the head of the select committee responsible for scrutinising Lord Mandelson's new "super-department".

Peter Luff, chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (BISC), said universities should not be too sorry about the loss of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills because it "lacked clout". He added that universities would always play "second fiddle" to schools in a department for education.

Last month, DIUS was abolished and merged with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Mr Luff told Times Higher Education that he had been "very surprised" by the decision and had "a nervousness" that it was being created around an individual rather than a principle.

However, the Conservative MP for Mid Worcestershire said he had since come to think the department had "a plausible rationale".

"I think there is every chance that universities will get a better deal out of (what was) BERR than they did where they were before," he said.

In a meeting in Westminster last week, Mr Luff announced that he would not be setting up a sub-committee to scrutinise higher education policy. He also refused to add the word "universities" to his committee's title despite being urged to do so by Universities UK.

In his experience, he said, sub-committees often had the effect of making an area of policy less rather than more important. "The answer is to prove that we care about higher education, rather than (to change) names and structures," he said.

Baroness Warwick, chief executive of UUK, said she was disappointed by Mr Luff's decision, but reassured by his words.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) would be a powerful department with a strong position in Cabinet and this was something the higher education sector hoped to take advantage of, she said.

Rick Trainor, president of UUK, told the committee that some in the sector had feared that, in BIS, universities would be "lost" or would be seen in purely "instrumental" terms.

But he said that Lord Mandelson had attended a UUK board meeting and reassured vice-chancellors "that neither of those concerns is valid".

Asked whether dangers might arise from linking universities too closely with business, Professor Trainor said: "There is a risk. But maybe the other risk - that universities might become too detached from business - is at least as great."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

COMMITTEE IS HOME TO FAMILIAR FACES

There are some familiar names on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee.

Among them is Julie Kirkbride, the Conservative MP for Bromsgrove, who has said she will stand down at the next election after she and her husband - Tory MP Andrew Mackay - were each found to have charged for second homes in the expenses scandal.

Also standing down at the next election is Mark Oaten, who was Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson until 2006, when he was implicated in a sex scandal involving a male prostitute.

Another member is Lembit Opik, the Lib Dem MP for Montgomeryshire in Wales, who has attracted tabloid attention for his relationships with weather presenter Sian Lloyd and Gabriela Irimia of pop duo the Cheeky Girls.

Roger Berry, Labour MP for Kingswood, is a former lecturer in economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, at the University of Sussex, and at the University of Bristol.

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