The Department for Mergers, Shuffles, Shifts and Reboots

Universities and schools are said to be 'natural' partners, but it has rarely been the case in Whitehall's swap shop, Andy Westwood notes

May 3, 2012

Credit: Liam Derbyshire

Widespread speculation prior to the 2010 election suggested that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was to be broken up and universities returned to their natural home at an expanded Department for Education. Perhaps surprisingly, this did not happen - but the lack of an outright Conservative majority and the rapid negotiation of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats put paid to many similar ideas. The rumours resurfaced with a vengeance, however, when BIS announced Les Ebdon as its preferred candidate for director of the Office for Fair Access. Michael Gove was furious that "social engineering" in university admissions would undermine his assault on poorly performing schools.

More recently, the suggestion that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport be closed after the Olympics and merged with BIS also recommends the shift of higher education back to DfE. For now, Jeremy Hunt may be more concerned with saving his career than his department; but beyond that, there are several tough political issues to tackle if either department is to be broken up mid-term. One important temptation for embattled governments is patronage, and there will already be candidates lining up for Hunt's seat in the Cabinet.

Many say that re-establishing an education department with responsibility for universities and schools merely restores the natural order of things, but history shows otherwise. Between 1918 and 1964, the University Grants Committee reported to the Treasury, and only after the 1963 Robbins report on higher education was the new Department of Education and Science created. It existed for almost 30 years. In 1992, science was transferred to the Department of Trade and Industry, and education merged with employment to create the DfEE in 1995. These arrangements survived the first term of the Labour government, but after the 2001 election, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education and Skills were established.

Between 1992 and 2007, higher education was split across two departments, and it was only fleetingly high up in the priorities of either. BIS is a more recent construct: Gordon Brown was persuaded by Peter Mandelson to create it, partly as a positive story of economic growth and partly as a price for political loyalty. Before that, Brown had created the DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) and the DIUS (Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills). Altogether then, BIS is the seventh and most recent departmental home for higher education in 50 years, showing that chopping and changing is a constant feature in Whitehall.

What might happen over the next few years and where might higher education end up this time? It is difficult to see anything quick or easy, as coalition politics makes a reshuffle of ministers and departments even more problematic than usual. Taking universities out of BIS - described as the "department of growth" by both Mandelson and Vince Cable - might seem especially odd while the economy continues to struggle. A coalition "reboot" may well be on the cards, but, as in the coalition's first few days, this will be fraught and subject to serious political horse-trading. If the Liberal Democrats lose higher education, they will want something significant in return and a damaged post-Olympics DCMS may not be enough.

But political frustrations are significant. This year has not gone particularly well and poor headlines are combining with growing dissatisfaction among the coalition parties. Disaffected advisers such as Steve Hilton are leaving and David Cameron is likening day-to-day reality to Yes, Minister. Conservative politicians and commentators are blaming civil servants for cock-ups ranging from VAT on pasties and high fuel prices to the failed deportation of Abu Qatada. Whitehall is routinely described as part of the problem.

It's a highly combustible mix of mid-term difficulties, frustrated backbenchers, poor polling and several high-profile disasters - and on that basis anything can happen. The challenge of breaking up and creating departments - whether in education or business - is that it takes time and effort, and voters may judge it a distraction while the economy stagnates and unemployment rises. Nevertheless, things are becoming so bad that a reorganisation or reshuffle may seem politically appealing and a way of resuscitating a struggling government.

Perhaps the Robbins report can still provide some useful pointers. Robbins considered many options for higher education's proper place, emphasising "that the business of the main institutions of higher learning is not only education: but also the advancement and preservation of knowledge". He rejected a move to the Department for Education, arguing that as "fundamentally different institutions", neither schools nor universities would "receive the attention they deserve if they are the responsibility of one minister rather than two". He ultimately recommended the creation of a Department for Arts and Science, with knowledge as its organising principle. If DCMS were to merge with BIS and retain responsibility for universities, he might finally be said to have got his way.

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