Researchers welcome Science and Technology Committee’s comeback

But lack of dedicated oversight for university policy worries v-cs. Rebecca Attwood and Zoë Corbyn report

June 26, 2009

News that a cross-party committee of MPs dedicated to scrutinising government policy on science and technology is to be re-established has been welcomed by the science community.

The decision to revive the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee follows lobbying by MPs and scientists, who warned that science policy risked being “lost in a black hole” after it was moved into Lord Mandelson’s new “super department” for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

But leading vice-chancellors are worried about what will happen to the scrutiny of higher education policy, which is also part of BIS’ remit.

Last night, Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat MP and chair of the Science and Technology Committee, told the Commons: “I am not betraying a confidence when I say that I had discussions this morning with the vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Alison Richard. She expressed very real concerns about how universities are going to be scrutinised within this massive new department.”

Such scrutiny is likely to fall to a separate sub-committee of the new Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (BISC), which has been set up to shadow BIS.

MPs on the old Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, which provided oversight for the now-defunct Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, will move to the Science and Technology Committee, Times Higher Education understands.

BISC will be made up of MPs from the old Business and Enterprise Committee, which shadowed the former Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

However, there may be some movement of MPs between committees over the summer.

Mr Willis said yesterday that he was “delighted” by the decision to re-establish the Science and Technology Committee, which he chaired at the time of its dissolution in 2007, but added that universities needed a committee of their own.

He told MPs: “I fully accept that my committee will be able to look at the research elements of universities – that is right and proper – but issues related to teaching, undergraduate work, access to universities, how we keep [them] world class and so forth is a job for a committee on its own.”

Mr Willis added that this was particularly pressing given that the review of university fees is pending and that John Denham, the former Universities Secretary, had committed the Government to re-examining the form and function of higher education.

Universities UK confirmed today that it has written to Peter Luff, the chairman of BISC, asking him to consider establishing a sub-committee devoted to BIS’ higher education remit, as well as adding the word “universities” to its title.

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