Saturday, June 06, 2009

The UK's Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is no more

One item that did not make big headlines is the ministerial shake up of British higher education. Two years ago, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was created and headed by John Denham. On the one hand, many were pleased that higher and further education had received a higher miniterial profile. On the other hand, many remained concerned at the link with "innovation" and "skills" which -- for some -- may have suggested that universities existed primarily to serve the needs of business rather than intellectual development that may or may not serve business needs.

Well, the sceptics have further reason to remain concerned. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius) has now been scrapped. In its place, we will have the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Note that the difference in name is that "Universities" is removed and "Business" is added . . . and added first. The minister in charge? None other than Lord Mandelson. According to the BBC here:

"[. . .] "to build Britain's capabilities to compete in the global economy".

Number 10 said it would invest in a higher education system committed to widening participation.

The role would include "maintaining world class universities, expanding access to higher education, investing in the UK's science base and shaping skills policy and innovation".

"It also puts the UK's further education system and universities closer to the heart of government thinking about building now for the upturn," the statement said. [. . .]"

Those who feared that the government viewed universities as primarily geared towards serving business may have those fears further confirmed. One consequence is the concern that those working in the arts, humanities, and social sciences will all be treated as second-class citizens: note the language of "investing in the UK's science base" suggesting any added investment will be directed to the physical sciences alone. A further consequence is additional emphasis on applied research rather than blue skies research.

There are other conserns as well. The former Dius focussed solely on England because of devolution in the UK. Yet, Lord Mandelson's business portfolio appears to remain UK-wide. Thus, the new Dbis appears to be an awkward hybrid where some of its powers are UK-wide and some relate to England alone. It is unclear how this split in remit will be managed, at least according to the BBC here.

My view? This is further disappointing news.

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