A new political home for universities and colleges

17 Jun 2009 Guardian Education

 How long will this one last?

So, it's farewell to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. It had a difficult start, a short life, and an ignominious ending. But the real question is, where does the latest upheaval in government machinery leave universities and colleges? Dius was created just two years ago - the unintended consequence of the union between schools and children's services.

Ed Balls's idea for a Department for Children, Schools and Families had a certain logic to it, bringing together all the services that affect children's lives. But because it was felt that the new department would be too big, responsibility for further and higher education had to be parcelled out somewhere else. So Dius was created. The problem was that it split universities from schools and, more seriously, responsibility for further education was divided between two different departments, with 14- to 19-year-olds in colleges staying with the DCSF and the rest going to Dius.

The consolation for universities and colleges was that they had their own department to defend their corner, rather than being overshadowed by the politically more sensitive area of school education. Now, Dius has been gobbled up by Lord Mandelson's new Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Once again, it appears that the decision about where to place governmental responsibility for universities and colleges has been forced by political factors rather than by what is best for them. Higher and further education are just two out of 15 areas of responsibility for BIS.

The waste of energy and money in setting up and then dismantling a government department is bad enough. Although the actual costs of creating Dius are hard to ascertain (for which the department earned a reprimand from the innovation and universities select committee), they are thought to be about £9m - which might have been justified if the newly created department had lasted for more than two years.

Dius started out with no building of its own, staff scattered throughout other buildings, and without its own press office. It even had to build its website from scratch. Now another new department is being created, which - if there is a change of government soon - may have an even shorter life.

Despite the problems of its difficult start, under its secretary of state, John Denham, Dius had embarked on a thorough review of higher education. This steady and solid gathering of evidence was good preparation for the review of student finance, due to be launched this year.

But now, with Denham moved elsewhere, how much of this good spadework will be lost? He had immersed himself in the Future of HE review and, unusually for ministers these days, had called on independent experts in the field to provide him with the research base for a thorough 10- to 15-year, long-term vision for the future.

How much focus can Mandelson give to higher education when it is only one of many parts of his vast empire? He is also likely to be more than a little distracted by his role at the heart of the battle for the government's political survival. I am sure he will make a shrewd choice of the person to lead the review of student finance. However, with his instinct for political survival, you can be sure the choice will be driven by the desire for a safe pair of hands, rather than an open-ended review - and that no recommendations will be made about lifting the cap on top-up fees this side of an election.

One consolation for both further and higher education is that, as we enter a period of very tough public spending decisions, they will have a heavy hitter on their side. However, on the wider front, there must be real concern that universities and colleges have now been firmly placed in the framework of business and enterprise. While the drive for economically useful skills is clearly important, is this really the main focus we want for all post-19 education?


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