UK: Universities disappear in super-ministry

Lord Mandelson, Britain's second most powerful minister, used last week's Science Museum's 100th birthday celebrations to argue that the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills would put science at the centre of the government's economic recovery plans for a prosperous, sustainable future.

Attacked in the House of Lords, Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills but widely known as "the Prince of Darkness", was equally assertive about the high priority that would be attached to the universities.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown had axed the two-year-old Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, headed by John Denham, in his reshuffle after disastrous local government and European parliament election results rocked his administration.

Mandelson's new mega-ministry moves the universities and science research much closer to the function of wealth creation, and away from the liberal view of higher education and scholarship for its own ends. The initiative was greeted with anger in some quarters, with questions raised about the costs of creating - and then dismantling - the previous department.

This was Brown's own creation when he became Prime Minister just two years ago and promised a higher profile for the university sector. That move was seen as a positive step for the universities which felt dominated by the schools sector when under the wing of monolithic education departments.

But Mandelson said at the Science Museum: "A new world is emerging, one on the edge of a new industrial revolution that's driven by new technologies and the world's shift to low-carbon future."

He came under fire in the House of Lords, where he told the critical Bishop of Portsmouth: "In the Prime Minister's view - it is a view I share - to compete in a global economy and to create the jobs in the future that we want to see, Britain requires an environment that encourages enterprise, skilled people, innovation and world-class science and research.

"The merger of these two departments puts the policy levers for these requirements in one place with one strategic commitment to building Britain's future economic and educational strengths."

But former Tory Cabinet Minister Lord Hunt commented: "It is a shameful and retrograde development that further and higher education have been subsumed in this way, to be judged not worthy even of a single letter in the new departmental acronym."

Lord Baker, a former Tory Education Secretary, was scathing: "There is a close relationship between industry and universities through beneficial research but universities are not basically about improving competitiveness or building industrial strategy. They are essentially custodians of scholarship, intellectual rigour and world-class teaching."

Lord Drayson, Minister for Science and Innovation in the new department, sought to assure the science community that the Prime Minister was "fully committed" to science and innovation.

"I look forward to working with Peter Mandelson to ensure that all of the ground-breaking research which takes place on our shores can continue to thrive and contribute to the health of our economy, people and planet. The science ring-fence is safe and sound and the innovation agenda will further benefit from this move."

Nick Dusic, Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said: "Lord Mandelson needs to clearly signal that investment in science and higher education will not be redirected to support industrial priorities. There needs to be a consultation about developing strategies to commercialise science, which should include a proper debate about the implications of focussing research funding."

The main lecturers' union expressed its disappointment at the demolition of the former department. Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and College Union, said she was "very concerned" the merger seemed to signal that further and higher education were no longer considered important enough to have a department of their own.

"The fact they have been lumped in with business appears to be a clear signal of how the government views colleges and universities and their main roles in this country," Hunt said.

Other reactions were typically diplomatic, phrased in the knowledge that - almost certainly for the next year - the new department and its controversial Secretary of State will be the force in their land.

Pam Tatlow, Chief Executive of the university think-tank Million+, said: "If the new department means that universities are at the heart of the government's agenda for innovation and this is linked with a commitment to promote social mobility and employability, then the new department may bring greater coherence and some real benefits."

But Professor Les Ebdon, Chair of Million+ and Vice-chancellor of the University of Luton, said: "The new department faces immediate challenges, in particular the tens of thousands of potential students who will be turned away because there are no places for them at university this year. If the new department is serious about skills it will find the additional places and funding needed."

Diana Warwick, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said the former department had represented the government's acknowledgement of the important and central role of higher education to the economy and society by guaranteeing a distinct voice for universities in cabinet.

"We expect this new powerful department to build on the expertise and platform created by DIUS. We are looking forward to an early meeting with Lord Mandelson," Warwick said. "We want to work with him to continue the momentum in developing a higher education system that will equip people with the knowledge and skills to compete in a global economy and enhance Britain's existing world-class research base."

National Union of Students President Wes Streeting said he hoped that Mandelson would be "bold in his approach to the forthcoming review of higher education funding and ensure that students have a genuine voice in the coming debate".

The union's proposal for an alternative to top up fees would be published shortly and NUS looked forward to debating this with the Secretary of State in the coming weeks, Streeting said.