Theresa May’s move to switch higher education into the Department for Education has prompted warnings that universities could face further risks on overseas students if the concept of an education exports strategy is rejected.
Ms May made the switch in the announcement of her new Cabinet on 14 July, when it was confirmed that the DfE will take responsibility for universities, under new education secretary Justine Greening.
Higher education and research had previously both been under the responsibility of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. But there is now a split between teaching and research, with the latter remaining at BIS’ successor department, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (into which the former Department of Energy and Climate Change has been merged).
Greg Clark was announced as secretary of state in BEIS, with former business secretary Sajid Javid switched to secretary of state for communities and local government.
Jo Johnson keeps his post as universities and science minister, but his role will now span the DfE and BEIS.
As home secretary, Ms May had many battles with BIS on overseas students – rejecting the pleas of universities and BIS ministers to remove students from net migrant targets – and has now radically reshaped the department in one of her first acts as prime minister.
Ms May's joint chief-of-staff, Nick Timothy, had previously criticised BIS’ plans to increase overseas student recruitment.
John Denham, Labour secretary of state in the former Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills when it was created in 2007 and which took responsibility for higher education and research, said that being within a business department “gave university investment, both science and teaching, a much bigger weight in government because you were constantly able to bring it back to the fact that this department was crucial to innovation and productivity and the development of a skilled workforce”.
Mr Denham, now professor of English identity and politics at the University of Winchester, warned that “if universities lose influence in Whitehall, if they’re not seen as central to innovation and productivity, they may find it harder to defend against tighter rules on overseas students”.
In June 2015, Mr Johnson said that the UK was “committed to increasing education exports from £18 billion in 2012 to £30 billion by 2020” – but there may now be question marks over that goal given Ms May’s rise to power.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former adviser to Lord Willetts when he was universities minister in BIS, said that the new structure “could reduce the pressure for a better deal for international students”.
He said that “an outward-looking secretary of state for education" – Ms Greening was head of the Department for International Development – could mean "a really joined-up education exports strategy…which covers schools and universities.
“But it would indeed take a really brave and persuasive secretary of state to go against the known views of the new PM on this and the new home secretary [Amber Rudd] will be key too.”
Vince Cable, the former business secretary, was broadly optimistic on the new structure in its “explicit acceptance of industrial strategy. That was one of our legacies in the coalition government that Sajid [Javid] neglected, really – he wasn’t interested.”
He said that as home secretary, Ms May “started to believe her own propaganda, that students are only here to work in Tesco, they’re not here to study…It has a very debilitating effect. I think the Treasury called it ‘burning money’ – which is essentially what she was doing.
“But I just hope that now she is out of it, the new minister [Ms Rudd] can have a fresh look at this.”
Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, who worked in both the DfE and DIUS as Labour higher education minister, backed the switch.
“If you’re really interested in progression and widening participation, a key and fundamental link is between schools, colleges and higher education – and it makes no sense to have different departments guiding those sets of relationships,” he said.
Asked if switching to the DfE could reduce the weight universities carry on overseas students in Whitehall, Mr Rammell suggested that BIS had failed to make that argument itself.
He also cautioned that “we shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”.