MPs responsible for scrutinising Lord Mandelson’s new “super-department” for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) have refused to set up a separate committee to examine its work on higher education.
Vice-chancellors had written to Peter Luff, chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (BISC) – the cross-party body of MPs responsible for scrutinising BIS – to ask him to consider establishing a sub-committee focusing on universities. They also wanted Mr Luff to add the word “universities” to BISC’s title.
But in a meeting on 30 June at Portcullis House in Westminster, Mr Luff told Universities UK that his committee, which officially takes its new name in October, had decided to reject both suggestions.
In his experience, sub-committees often had the effect of making an area of policy less rather than more important, he said.
“We’ve had experience of sub-committees and we’ve found they don’t work very well,” he said. He added that the committee’s name had to reflect the title of the government department it scrutinised.
Mr Luff joked that he had been told by one minister that the reason “universities” had not been included in BIS’ title was that “wherever they put it, it spelt ‘dubious’.”
But he also promised that BISC’s work would fully reflect higher education’s importance.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of UUK, said she was disappointed by the decision, but also “reassured” by Mr Luff’s words.
Speaking about BIS’ creation, she said that by bringing together so many policy areas that impinged on the economy, a very powerful department had been formed with a strong position in Cabinet, something the higher education sector hoped to take advantage of.
When BIS’ formation was first announced, there were fears that universities might be “lost in the great mass of other concerns” or would be seen in purely “instrumental” terms, Rick Trainor, president of UUK, told the committee.
However, Lord Mandelson had attended a UUK board meeting last week and had 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.”
He added that funding remained the sector’s priority, and referred to the 15-20 per cent shortfall in teaching cash outlined by The Sustainability of Learning and Teaching in English Higher Education, a report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England published earlier this year.
Professor Trainor added that he also had “considerable worries” about the impact of the Government’s new points-based visa system on the sector.
Summing up the session, Mr Luff, MP for Mid Worcestershire, said he had found UUK to be more content with the new Whitehall arrangement than he had expected.
Baroness Warwick explained: “It was a real help that the Secretary of State [Lord Mandelson] was so positive in what he said… He really went out of his way to ensure that we understood the importance he placed on the role of higher education… so I think there is a fair wind.”
Professor Trainor added: “We asked for assurances, he has given those assurances, and now we will test how far they are carried out.”
Mr Luff promised that BISC would test this, too.