‘Delays’ to UK government research ‘worse than embarrassing’

Key research on higher education ‘getting dusty’ on Whitehall shelves, according to former insider

February 8, 2017
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Key UK government-commissioned research on higher education is “getting dusty” on departmental shelves rather than being published, a situation that is “worse than an embarrassment”, according to a former ministerial adviser.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former adviser to Lord Willetts in his time as universities and science minister, blamed “constant Whitehall reorganisations” for the problem.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, formed in 2009, was previously responsible for higher education and research.

But in 2016, higher education was hived off to the Department for Education, while research became the responsibility of the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

All Whitehall departments have been hit by cuts in staffing since the Conservative-led coalition government began its austerity programme in 2010. And last year’s Brexit vote has also caused huge upheaval in the Civil Service through the creation of the Department for Exiting the European Union.

The government reports identified by Mr Hillman as having been delayed include the Student Income and Expenditure Survey 2014 to 2015.

“The previous report, which was published [by BIS] soon after it was completed, looked at 2011-12,” Mr Hillman said. “But the 2014-15 [edition] has yet to appear, so we still have no published data for the post-£9K fees regime.”

He also highlighted an ongoing study of the comparative strength of the UK research base, carried out by Elsevier and previously published by BIS.

Mr Hillman said reports on this study appeared in 2011 and 2013, “yet we are still waiting for the next instalment”.

He added: “As there is always a time lag in the data, we do not yet have a comparative study for the strength of British research in the true austerity years. There is an expectation that the UK has slipped down the global league for research in recent years and somewhere [in Whitehall] someone knows for certain whether that is in fact the case.”

Also highlighted by Mr Hillman was a joint BIS-DfE project announced by Lord Willetts in 2013. This involved ministers sending letters to poorer school pupils who scored well in their GCSEs, encouraging them to apply to university.

This project “has long been completed and evaluated”, said Mr Hillman, but there has yet to be any report on it.

When contacted by Times Higher Education, the DfE and BEIS offered no information beyond stating that the reports in question would be published “in due course”.

Mr Hillman said that “the fact that critical research which the Whitehall machine has itself commissioned is getting dusty on shelves somewhere, rather than being placed in ministers’ red boxes and then published for all to see, is worse than an embarrassment. It is a blockage on smart policy at a time of unprecedented challenges. 

“We are not talking about nice-to-have research; we are talking about some of the most important areas of government policy – on student poverty, on the strength of our research base and on widening participation.”

He added: “I don’t blame ministers, for whom it would also be helpful to have this information in the public domain, and I am not blaming any individual civil servant. Rather, the problems almost certainly stem from the constant Whitehall reorganisations.

“The fiasco in Sheffield, whereby higher education policy specialists were laid off by BIS only for the posts now to be readvertised by the DfE, is perhaps the apotheosis of the problems that have caused these repeated delays.”


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