Merged ministry triggers alarm

July 14, 1995

The Government's decision to mix employment and education portfolios has met with a cool reception

The reshuffle of ministers' jobs in the new Department for Education and Employment came under fire from universities and colleges this week.

A share-out of education and employment duties, which has split responsibility for further and higher education, post-16 issues, student support and teacher training between four ministers, was condemned as "utterly barmy" by the Association for Colleges and as "senseless" by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals.

Officials working with Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State in the new department, have tried to knit the roles of the former departments together by giving ministers a mix of Department for Education and Department of Employment briefs.

Eric Forth, who retains his old DFE standing as minister of state, gains responsibility for higher education and student funding - as well as taking on employment policy and the Jobseeker's Allowance. He seems well placed to tackle the mixed approach with his track record as under-secretary in both the departments of employment and trade and industry.

James Paice, continuing as under-secretary of state, will oversee further education and post-16 issues - seen by many as increasingly linked to HE. He did a spell as private secretary to Baroness Trumpington and worked for John Gummer at the Department of the Environment from 1993-94 before moving to the DE.

Meanwhile, a new minister of state is Lord Henley, who moves up from under- secretary in defence. A hereditary Irish baron, he has experience as under- secretary of state for social security and employment and as a Government whip.

Teacher training goes to Robin Squire, who continues as under-secretary largely responsible for schools issues.

The former permanent secretaries for the DFE and the DE, Sir Tim Lankester and Michael Bichard, retain their jobs and share responsibilities in the new department. Sir Tim gained his DFE post when Sir Geoffrey Holland stepped down last year. He was previously permanent secretary at the Overseas Development Agency. Mr Bichard was formerly chief executive of the Social Security Benefits Agency after a career in local government.

Further and higher education leaders were hoping the Government would use the reshuffle to bridge divisions between the sectors, academic and vocational qualifications, academe and the world of work. Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, said the division of FE and HE responsibilities seemed "senseless" at a time when the sectors were moving towards greater integration. A spokeswoman for the AFC added: "It is utterly barmy. At a time when we thought we were approaching something like a 'seamless robe' they seem to have done a lot of unhelpful unstitching."

But Sir Geoffrey Holland, vice chancellor of Exeter University and former permanent secretary of both departments, said the merger was "not a spur of the moment decision" and the "pros and cons and the consequences" had been "carefully analysed".

Bob Bennett, professor of geography at the London School of Economics and a critic of training and enterprise councils, said the merger could spell the end of the TECs. The TEC budget is largely for training, and with the DFEE now handing out the money, rather than the employment department or the DTI, "it could be that FE colleges are preferred above employer-led TECs". (TEC stories, page 2).

Opposition parties had mixed feelings about the reshuffle.

Labour said it deplored the separation of further and higher education between ministers, but welcomed the possibility of a new regional dimension imported from the Employment Department.

The Liberal Democrats said the Government had finally made the right move by merging the DFE and DE but the mixture of ministers' responsibilities was again condemned as "bizarre".

Don Foster, the education spokesman, said his party had long argued for a merged department but added: "It looks as though there has been little thought about how ministers' responsibilities should reflect a unified approach to education and training."

Bryan Davies, Labour's further and higher education spokesman, said the growing number of FE institutions offering higher-level courses would be disheartened by the segregation of FE from HE. "It will fuel anxieties that they are operating on nothing like a level playing field," he said.

But the introduction of responsibility for regional policy into James Paice's brief was a welcome move. "It means there is some responsibility for relating to regional structures, which is a base on which we will be seeking to build," he added.

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