Labour was wrong to move universities out of the remit of the Department for Education, a former higher education minister has claimed.
Bill Rammell, now vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, led the higher education sector when it was transferred to a new body, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, shortly after Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as prime minister in 2007.
Two years later, it was merged with the business department to create the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, a new ministry overseen by Lord Mandelson.
However, Mr Rammell said he did not think that the original move to take higher education out of the Department for Education – which was done mainly to bring science and university funding together – was the correct decision.
He said he thought that responsibility for universities should return to the Department for Education, which Michael Gove now runs.
The transfer would help the sector to improve its record on getting more children from poor backgrounds into university, Mr Rammell told delegates at the National Education Opportunities Network’s first Summer Symposium at his university’s Bedford campus on 20 June.
“If you are interested in progress [to university] and widening participation, you need schools, colleges and universities to be governed by the same department,” he said.
The return of universities to the education department is known to be desired by Mr Gove, who is implementing plans to include universities more in the running of the A‑level system.
However, any attempted transfer is likely to be opposed by Vince Cable, the business secretary, whose department’s budget is largely made up of universities and research spending.
Mr Rammell also said that all three political parties recognised the need for sweeping changes to the higher education system after the next general election.
“There is a dawning reality that [the system] is unsustainable post-2015,” he said, although he would not reveal how he would alter it.
He called on universities to speak out on the importance of the so-called widening participation premium – worth £332 million this year – which has been the subject of discussions leading up to this week’s government spending review.
“It would be very concerning if our most powerful universities ignored the importance of the widening participation agenda,” he said.
Adrian Bailey MP, chairman of the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which scrutinises the department’s work, also said that institutions needed to be more vocal about their achievements in helping poor students to reach university.
Demonstrating an engagement with their local community – both with schools and business – would be one of the few ways in which universities could secure extra state cash in future, he believed.
“There has to be evidence that the benefits of university are accruing to all, not just a small community of people,” he said.