Sector wins spot at Gordon's top table

July 6, 2007

Departmental reshuffle brings Cabinet representation for higher education, joined by science, innovation and skills. Rebecca Attwood reports

Universities have welcomed their new voice at the Cabinet table following a "bold" move by the Government to split the Department for Education and Skills in two.

The creation of a department with "universities" in its title has been welcomed as evidence that higher education holds a central place in Gordon Brown's vision for the future of the country.

Making the announcement, Mr Brown said the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills would aim "to make Britain one of the best places in the world for science, research and innovation, and to deliver the ambition of a world-class skills base."

Science and research funding will move from the Department of Trade and Industry to join universities in the DIUS, headed by Secretary of State John Denham.

The department will be responsible for the "development, funding and performance management" of higher education and further education and be responsible for "ensuring that the UK has the skilled workforce it needs to compete in a global economy".

The science budget remains ring-fenced and the dual support system for research funding where infrastructure and research activity are funded separately will be retained. A new Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser will be created within the DIUS.

Former Treasury minister Ed Balls, seen as Mr Brown's right-hand man, has been put in charge of the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), which will take on pre-19 education policy responsibilities.

Drummond Bone, president of Universities UK, called the formation of DIUS "exciting and forward-looking... It creates an extremely powerful ministry and clearly shows the central place that higher education holds in Mr Brown's vision for the future. Universities are key to the generation and exploitation of knowledge in the UK, so there is a clear rationale for moving science and innovation to the new department."

The Russell Group, the 1994 Group and CMU were among other university groups to welcome the announcement. But there were also concerns that higher education's separation from other aspects of education may pose problems of integration and that the division of further education between the two departments, with one covering education for the under 19s and another for the over 19s, could be problematic.

Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, University of London, and a former vice-chancellor, said that universities would welcome having their own Secretary of State and being joined with the Science and Innovation Framework but would also "be a little anxious about where this leaves their other vital partnerships: with health, with schools and with other parts of the public service.

"They will worry about the splitting of further education between the two new departments, the confusion that continues over the role of the Learning and Skills Council, the prospects in this context for the new 14-19 diplomas, and the impact on access into higher education other than via the 'royal route' of A levels and sixth forms," he said.

The Conservatives stressed the importance of "joined-up" thinking. David Willetts, Shadow Minister for Universities, said breaking up the DfES "means that no single person will be responsible for education any more". The CBI welcomed the new focus on skills for the economy but was cautious about the separation of science and industry.

Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, said that the society would have preferred the word "science" to have appeared in the new department's title.

He said: "The task of funding scientific research can sit comfortably alongside responsibility for universities, where much of the UK's groundbreaking work is conducted, and innovation. The challenge will be to ensure that the department has a strong voice."

However, some observers were sceptical about how much influence the DIUS would have.

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said the DIUS would be a very small department likely to have "limited clout" in Whitehall.

Gordon's Gang: The new movers and shakers in education

Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS)
Secretary of State: John Denham
Remit: Universities, further education (post-19) and innovation. DIUS takes over the former science budget from the now defunct Department of Trade and Industry.

Department for Children, Schools and Families
Secretary of State: Ed Balls
Remit: Education for children and young people up to the age of 19, youth and family policy. Takes control of Learning and Skills Council budget for 14-19 education, effectively splitting further education policy.

Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
Secretary of State: John Hutton
Remit: Takes over a revamped remit of the old Department of Trade and Industry, but without the science budget, switched to the DIUS.

Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education: Bill Rammell
The MP for Harlow keeps the job he had under Tony Blair since 2005 at the new DIUS.

Minister of state (likely to be for Science, Technology and Research): Ian Pearson
A graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, the MP for Dudley South moves from the Foreign Office.

Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Skills: David Lammy
The UK's youngest MP when he won the Tottenham by-election in 2000, Mr Lammy moves from the Culture Department.

Parliamentary Undersecretary of State (likely to be for Intellectual Property and Quality): Lord (David) Triesman
Former lecturers' union leader returns to higher education

Director General for Science and Innovation: Keith O'Nions
A former head of earth sciences at Cambridge University, Sir Keith keeps the role he had at the DTI as science moves to DIUS.

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