UK universities minister Sam Gyimah’s hiring of a second policy adviser is seen as part of a wider trend in government towards appointees with more “loyalty” to ministers than orthodox civil servants owe.
Diana Beech, currently director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute, has been appointed policy adviser for higher education to Mr Gyimah, it was announced on 16 July.
Stian Westlake will remain as a policy adviser to Mr Gyimah, covering science and innovation.
Ministers often have to fight hard to gain authorisation from No 10 to hire advisers. For a minister who is not within the Cabinet to have two advisers is regarded as unusual.
At least in part that reflects the fact that Mr Gyimah’s universities and science brief is split across two departments – the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
But some suggest that the latest appointment might be aimed at filling the gap in policy left by the abolition of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which was scrapped by the government and replaced with the more market-oriented Office for Students.
So the creation of the post might be part of a long-standing government aspiration to take more higher education policy “in-house”, a desire prompted by its belief that Hefce was too close to the sector, they suggest.
A DfE spokeswoman confirmed that “this is a Civil Service post, appointed by the relevant policy directorate to support officials and the minister in their efforts to deliver reforms and policy improvements to continue delivering a world-class education to students”.
Prior to her Hepi role, Dr Beech had been a civil servant at the Department for Education, where she was a programme manager and had responsibility for the establishment of the OfS.
Nick Hillman, Hepi director and a former special adviser to Lord Willetts in his time as a Conservative universities minister, said that there had been a growth in the number of policy advisers across government since 2010.
In terms of the differences between special advisers and policy advisers (“spads” and “pads”), Mr Hillman said that the former were “allowed to be more political”. Policy advisers also have fixed-term contracts, whereas special advisers usually have their contracts terminated when their ministers move on, he added.
Compared with more orthodox civil servants, a policy adviser’s “loyalty” might be “more to your minister than your department”, Mr Hillman said. For a minister, a policy adviser could be “someone you feel is your own personal appointment and you can bounce your own ideas off and you feel has a sense of loyalty to you”, he said. But that does not equate to being a “patsy” because one of an adviser’s most important jobs is to “tell the minister when they are wrong”, Mr Hillman added.
Andy Westwood, professor of government at the University of Manchester and a former special adviser to Labour’s John Denham in his time as secretary of state responsible for universities, said that both of Mr Gyimah’s advisers “will be welcome at their respective departments because of their deep knowledge and experience in their policy areas”.
He added: “In the DfE’s case, I’m sure Diana will bring very helpful additional capacity not least after losing several senior civil servants such as Iain Mansfield, Polly Payne and Ruth Hannant just before the reshuffle that brought Sam Gyimah into the job.”
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