Lord Willetts is president of the Resolution Foundation. He is the former Minister of University and Science Department.
Whitehall reorganization does not always go smoothly. I was shadowing Alan Johnson when he got the new title of Secretary of State for Productivity, Energy and Industrial Strategy – the acronym for his department’s new name lasted less than a week.
Rishi Sunak’s new structure is expected to last much longer. He rightly corrected some of the mistakes of his predecessors.
David Cameron took over Media and Digital Technology from the Business Department in 2010. Two secrets The Daily Telegraph Journalists attend Vince Cable’s election surgery, and are forced to make some unsavory comments about Rupert Murdoch as he acts in a quasi-judicial capacity to assess a takeover bid for Sky.
The department’s collective punishment for what Vince said has caused problems ever since. Software in one category and hardware in another category. This division between the two departments is one reason the government has yet to come up with a semi-conductor strategy. The new division finally put an end to it.
The new framework also overhauls Theresa May’s reshuffle of Whitehall. Bringing the Department of Energy and Climate Change into the Department of Business diverted BEIS from many other issues. Energy has a big meaty agenda and deserves its own category.
Theresa also created a department to negotiate trade agreements. But trade negotiations must be based on a good understanding of the business sector. So both commerce and business departments were asking similar questions of business. Bringing them back to a category makes life all around easier.
These changes make a lot of sense, therefore. But there is one more step, which would actually mean we had a unified approach to the science superpower agenda – bringing universities into the new science department as well. Universities are where much important research takes place. They train the researchers and technicians we need. It also attracts them from abroad. While the new science department will have responsibility for university research, the DfE will continue to have responsibility for teaching in universities. This division of responsibilities is very ineffective.
It may seem obvious that universities should be under the Department of Education – but originally they were funded by the Treasury. Dr. in his great report on higher education. Lionel Robbins warned against transferring universities to the Department of Education because he feared that such an interfering department would not understand or value the autonomy of universities.
His warning proved correct. The DfE treats universities like poorly performing secondary schools and now interferes with them so much that the Office for National Statistics may propose bringing universities into the public sector. This will be a huge change for Britain’s research efforts as many of our key researchers will suddenly become public sector employees.
Universities earn significant revenue from foreign students which they use to cross-subsidize research. But fees for domestic students (which of course students don’t pay up front – it’s a graduate repayment scheme) have been frozen at around £9,000 for a decade.
So the real resource of educating students falls below the cost of educating them. As a result, rather than subsidizing the cost of teaching British students, revenue is being diverted from overseas students. So the DfE is cutting research funding because it won’t properly fund British students. This is only possible because no one in the government looks at universities as a whole.
The DfE may even be happy to lose universities to the new department because it doesn’t like them very much. Its focus is on the 50 percent of young people who do not go to university. This is understandable, even commendable – but it means that higher education is the only part of the education system that the DfE wants people to avoid if possible. We celebrated Apprenticeship Week – right – but one would never imagine the DfE celebrating University Week.
Ministers always point to having four of our universities in the world’s top ten as evidence of how strong we are in research. You reached the top of that ranking with brilliant research published in prestigious journals. This is not a ranking based on the practical application of research. After they praised these top universities, the ministers then expressed their dismay that we are not good at commercializing research. But assuming that there is only one way to become a top university is part of the problem.
Successful innovation requires training of more technicians. This means not just having great ideas, but working with businesses on their practical application – and this often involves a local university working with a local company on a project to apply R&D. But universities that train technicians and apply R&D to small businesses are often less prestigious. Some did polytechnic!
Instead of recognizing how important they are to successful innovation, critics really wish they weren’t called universities at all because they think a proper university should look like Oxbridge. The view that only one type of research is worthwhile, the one that gets you to the top of the rankings, cripples our ability to do applied research. A strong department driving the innovation agenda is an opportunity to break down these hang-ups that hurt so much.
Michelle Donelan had an excellent article Sunday Telegraph Set his agenda for the department. He proudly said that when he was universities minister at the DfE he increased grants for the cost of teaching STEM subjects. It is unfortunate that he will not have the power to make such decisions in his new department.
The government speaks well of universities as places of research but not so much about them as places where most young people go for education. It has one leg on the accelerator to boost research and the other on the break cutting funding to teaching and trying to limit student numbers. Driving like this usually causes it to stall. So why not create a single coherent agenda keeping the overall responsibilities of these key national institutions in one place? It’s not too late!