Universities fear loss of policy focus as ministerial roles split

Experts say appointment of separate universities and science ministers means no one in government will ‘care about universities as a whole’

February 17, 2020
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Splitting ministerial responsibility for universities and science within the UK government could make it harder for higher education institutions to get a fair hearing in Whitehall, experts have warned.

Chippenham MP Michelle Donelan was named universities minister in the Department for Education last week, after Boris Johnson divided the brief from science for the first time since 2010. Amanda Solloway was expected to take on the science post within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, although her role was yet to be officially confirmed at the time of writing.

Their appointments followed the sacking of Chris Skidmore, who had served as universities and science minister across the DfE and BEIS.

Diana Beech, head of government affairs at the University of Warwick, and a former adviser to Mr Skidmore, warned that a stand-alone science minister might not be so “aware of the interdependency of science and HE” and might be less alert to the “importance of cross-subsidies in teaching and research”. This could have “profound implications on the way policy is made”, she said.

“It’s a new world order for universities – we haven’t seen something like this for a long time. Universities will have to fight for their place again in the government agenda,” Dr Beech said.

In this fight, universities will be a potential target if the Conservatives seek to bolster their increased support from working-class, largely non-graduate voters in towns across the Midlands and the north by waging “culture wars” against institutions they perceive as hostile to Tory values.

Ms Donelan’s priorities will include responding to the Augar review of post-18 education, which recommended cutting tuition fees in England, and formulating the action against “low-quality” university courses promised in the Conservative manifesto, which also pledged to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech” on campuses.

She becomes the fifth universities minister in little over two years, following two spells each for Mr Skidmore and Jo Johnson, and Sam Gyimah’s tenure.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said dividing the brief created “more churn at a time of great uncertainty for the sector”.

“My fear is [Ms Donelan] will worry less about the connections between the different activities that universities do,” he said.

Andy Westwood, vice-dean for social responsibility and professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, agreed that “Chris Skidmore was essentially the last person who cared about universities as a whole”.

“By splitting it up, no agency, no civil servant, no minister has a responsibility to think about universities as a single coherent sector. That is worrying,” he said.

The division of responsibilities may reflect the increased importance being attached to research and innovation post-Brexit, and the influence of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s most senior adviser.

But Lord Willetts, who was universities and science minister from 2010 to 2014, said the split “presents a challenge because of the different approaches of the two departments”.

“The DfE gives the impression of being rather sceptical on universities and not particularly interested in their growth or funding them more. However, BEIS is the custodian of the government’s approach of raising R&D spend to 2.4 per cent of GDP,” he said.

Jonathan Woodhead, policy adviser at Birkbeck, University of London, said that a minister focused solely on science “might give more of an emphasis on the potential Arpa-type ideas that Dominic Cummings has been coming out with”, referring to the planned Advanced Research Projects Agency funding high-risk science.

He added that it looked likely that the new science minister will be in a junior undersecretary role, meaning that they may have little influence in government. As universities and science minister, Jo Johnson had attended Cabinet meetings.

But “in a sense [science has] got its voice in the heart of government already” with Mr Cummings, Mr Woodhead said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Universities fear loss of policy focus as reshuffle splits ministerial roles

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Reader's comments (1)

So I'm guessing Dominic Cummings has universities on his hate list??!

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