Concerns over new universities and science minister's dual role

Greg Clark will split the position with his current role in charge of cities and growth

July 17, 2014

Source: Corbis

Greg Clark’s appointment as universities and science minister while he retains another ministerial job in the Cabinet Office has prompted concerns in the sector about the split post.

However, there was a generally warm welcome for Mr Clark – viewed as a moderate within the Conservative Party and as a “listener” – and suggestions that his combined role has the potential to join up universities with regional growth.

Mr Clark, a Social Democratic Party member in his youth who has an economics degree from the University of Cambridge and a PhD from the London School of Economics, was appointed minister for universities and science in a reshuffle on 15 July, after David Willetts resigned from the post the day before.

He retains his existing role as minister of state in the Cabinet Office, held since October 2013, where he is responsible for cities, local growth and political and constitutional reform, and has been heavily involved with City Deals, aimed at giving regions more investment so that they can drive economic growth.

Mr Clark, who will attend Cabinet, has described himself on Twitter as “minister for universities, science and cities”, although the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was unable to confirm at the time Times Higher Education went to press whether this was his official title.

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading and a former permanent secretary in the Department for Education, said of the universities and science post: “It is very surprising that such an important brief will not have the dedicated focus offered by a single minister. This confirms that there will be no major policy shifts this close to the election.”

He added: “The interest though will come in how the government responds if Labour finally proposes a very different approach to fees and funding. We will then be able to gauge if there is an appetite to build a new political consensus in the next Parliament.” Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said of Mr Clark’s appointment that he would “worry a little…about his split responsibilities. Being universities and science minister is a full-time job.

“Some people say there’s not much to do, in the absence of HE legislation. But that underestimates the role. There is always a crisis to deal with, an international science project to sort out and a new policy to deliver. At the top of the new minister’s in-tray will be quality issues at some alternative providers, science capital priorities and the details of removing student number controls.”

Managing tensions with the Home Office over student visas and fending off any further action that may damage universities may be another task for Mr Clark.

Mr Hillman, a former special adviser to Mr Willetts in his time as universities and science minister, also said that Mr Clark was “a serious politician, with a good track record in putting City Deals together. He is not an identikit Tory…And he is a listener rather than an ideologue, so vice-chancellors will be able to engage with him.”

Perhaps unusually for a Tory MP, Mr Clark has worked at the BBC – as head of commercial policy – in a pre-Parliament career that also included roles at Boston Consulting and as director of policy for the Conservatives under leaders William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.

Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE and a former special adviser to Labour’s John Denham in his time as secretary of state for universities, said linking universities and science with regional growth could be an interesting approach “in theory”.

He added: “If you look at all the City Deals that have been agreed from Manchester to Liverpool to Birmingham and the whole LEP [Local Enterprise Partnership] agenda, you could add that together with universities, science and innovation and say that’s a concerted attempt to put higher education more explicitly into a growth role.”

Mr Westwood continued that “all the City Deals and the LEPs will want to do that”, and that such a link follows some of the themes set by recent reviews of growth led by Sir Andrew Witty and Michael Heseltine.

Meanwhile, there were suggestions that the science portfolio had been split after George Freeman was appointed life sciences minister, a joint role between the Department of Health and BIS.

There was also early criticism on Twitter of Mr Clark, the MP for Tunbridge Wells, after it emerged that the new science minister had signed a 2007 Early Day Motion supporting “NHS homeopathic hospitals” and stating that “complementary medicine has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems”.

Twitter reacts: what the people want

We asked our @timeshighered Twitter followers for their wish list for Greg Clark, the new minister covering universities and science, under the hashtag #DearGreg:

  • “Fight for a return of post-study work visas for overseas students” – Christopher Costigan (@chris_thinks), director of academic collaborations at BPP University.
  • “Please can you order a review of the way university managers are appointed – we need more diversity” – Sue Shepherd (@sueshepherdHE), higher education consultant and PhD student.
  • “Fully fund PhD students. Kill the REF. Contain managerial hypertrophy” – Eric Gordy (@EricGordy), politics lecturer, University College London.
  • “What do I want? A [postgraduate] funding system, #fairpayinHE for PG tutors, looking beyond ‘economic impact’ & saving [the Disabled Students’ Allowance]” – Lucy Gill (@LucyGill09), University of Warwick Students’ Union postgraduate officer.
  • “Address the systemic market failure that has caused year on year decline in part-time student numbers” – Matt Innes (@matt1nnes), vice-master at Birkbeck, University of London.

Chris Parr

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