12 May 2015
Many whose role includes liaising with ministers and officials are likely to breathe a quiet sigh of relief at the prospect of working with a government which can command a majority, however small, in the House of Commons. There are obvious benefits in having ministers from the same party whose aim is to work together to produce a coherent narrative and outcome. For universities, the new government brings some very distinct and particular advantages. For all of the focus on fees and to some extent science funding, the interests of universities run far beyond the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.
Universities interconnect with a range of societal and strategic interests and their activities contribute to an equally wide range of government departments. It was never a happy scenario that under the former Coalition Government particular policies became a private, and sometimes a very public, battleground between Ministers of different parties. Sensible and balanced decision-making was undoubtedly prejudiced by the well-known disagreements between Ministers in BIS and the Department for Education and also the Home Office. Compromises were inevitably found on some key questions, for example in respect of the retention of the Student Opportunity Allocation. However, the opportunity for Ministers to do ‘business’ with like-minded colleagues in other departments was too often compromised especially in the latter years of a government which had run its course well before the five year period set in legislative stone by the Fixed Term Parliament Act.
Notwithstanding the plaudits of Universities’ Ministers and the Chancellor, the wider contributions of universities were often under-appreciated in a Coalition Government more prone to operate in silos. The outcome of the election therefore ushers in opportunities for engagement, not only with the new BIS Ministerial team but also for these Ministers to work with their Conservative colleagues in other departments.
It also has to be an advantage that whilst new to their brief, many Ministers have experience both in and outside of parliament. This, in itself, is likely to underpin a more coherent approach. The appointment of Jo Johnson as Universities and Science Minister with a brief that includes student visas, provides universities with a Minister who has been at the heart of Conservative policy-making as Head of the Cabinet office and Minister since 2013. Fluent in French, a former investment banker and influential financial journalist who worked in Asia and won an award as foreign journalist of the year in India, Johnson is more than well-placed to understand the interconnectivity of policy including from a global perspective.
John Hayes as Minister for Security in the Home Office was a well-liked Opposition Spokesperson and Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education between 2010 and 2013. His many tasks will include chairing the Prevent Oversight Board where he is likely to make good use of his wider knowledge of the sector.
Ed Timpson, newly appointed as Minister of State for Education, brings an interesting personal back story to the table which he has put to good use in parliament. Named as Minister of the Year in 2014, he pushed through reforms to increase the age of leaving foster care from 18 to 21 – no doubt influenced by a childhood experience of growing up in a family that fostered over 80 children. He may find it difficult to ignore the growing evidence of a teacher shortage. Whatever the commitments of the Conservative Party to train more teachers in schools, common sense suggests that he is at least likely to need to reconsider the role of universities in addressing what risks becoming a crisis of teacher supply.
And then there is health. Prior to polling day the Conservatives made some big commitments to increase spending, move to seven day working and increase the number of medics and nurses. It will be imperative that the role of universities in delivering the professional staff required to fulfil this agenda is understood in BIS and DoH and considered as a matter of urgency. This will require rapid investment in Health Education England and new agreements and commissions with universities. For their part, health care providers will need to provide high quality placements for students – a challenge which may be increasingly difficult if they are also required to address deficits.
If the Treasury’s ambitions to improve productivity are to be fulfilled, it would do well to work with BIS to look at funding regimes that would assist those universities which have long traditions of offering flexible provision for those already in the workplace. This agenda has been hindered rather than helped by the post 2012 funding reforms and cannot be addressed simply by promoting higher apprenticeships. There would also be good reason to advance productivity through the provision of funding for translational research geared at universities that can demonstrate research excellence but which historically receive only modest investment through the research excellence framework.
Last but not least, whether or not international students are taken out of the net migration cap as Jo Johnson himself has previously argued, there is much to be gained all round from a less confrontational relationship between BIS and the Home Office. If there is any area which would benefit from interconnectivity and oil being poured on troubled waters, this is it.
Whatever the immediate legislative agenda, universities have the chance to demonstrate how their activities align with the ambitions of new Ministerial teams across government. For their part Ministers have an unexpected opportunity to demonstrate that they can deploy to good effect the politics of interconnectivity in the majority government that was gifted to them by the electorate on the 7th of May.
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