Charles Clarke, the former Education Secretary, has criticised the Government for “chopping and changing” departments in its recent restructuring of Whitehall.
In a speech that was also critical of the sector for failing to change sufficiently quickly, he said: “The Government was wrong to divide the department [of education], then to create DIUS [the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills], then to destroy it again… You need a central government operation that works in a coherent way. It’s difficult to have that if you’re chopping and changing the way that you operate, and I think that’s a major problem.”
Mr Clarke, the Labour MP for Norwich South, suggested that Lord Mandelson, who heads the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, would look with “fresh eyes” at the forthcoming higher education framework, drawn up by John Denham, the former Universities Minister (now Communities Secretary). He suggested that the content of the framework could well change as a result of the reshuffle, adding that he had told Lord Mandelson he should not assume that he had inherited an “outstanding piece of work”.
Giving the 1994 Group’s annual lecture in London on 18 June, Mr Clarke went on to criticise both the sector and the Government for lack of progress in some areas.
Referring back to a White Paper published in 2003 when he was Secretary of State for Education, he said that some advances had been made on key points, but asked: “Have we got a strategy for reform? It’s not all there.”
Among the areas he cited were tuition fees and funding, quality of teaching, employer engagement and expansion of student numbers.
Asked how quality of teaching could be maintained given the squeeze on public funds and the unwillingness of students to bear more debt, he said the sector should look for new sources of income, bemoaning the “disconnect” between universities and business.
He added: “‘Quality’ is a word I have difficulty with – it doesn’t necessarily mean doing things as we do things now. We need to take that quality issue and decide what it means.”
Mr Clarke went on to criticise universities for failing to develop collaborative relationships with each other and for inconsistent teaching quality.
While praising the 1994 Group, he said: “The extent to which universities try to reach the needs of their students is very variable. I’m doubtful whether the sector has made progress.”
A significant number of universities still see students as being privileged to be there, he said. Similarly, many institutions were not signed up to the Government’s target of 50 per cent participation in higher education.
Mr Clarke said he had resisted calls for a “Stalinist” approach to university mergers and collaborations in the hope that closer relationships would evolve without intervention. However, he said, this had not happened. He questioned whether having 40 universities in London was “a rational way of organising” the sector.