DfE seeks higher education experts in BIS Sheffield "u-turn”

Recruitment drive looks to replace lost policy officers after former department’s relocation bid


By Jim Dunton

16 Jan 2017

The Department for Education is recruiting for a raft of Sheffield-based higher education policy roles, effectively hiring new staff to replace those given severance packages by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills last year.

Until its abolition in July’s post-EU referendum machinery of government changes, BIS was responsible for higher education and was pursuing a closure programme for its Sheffield office – in the same St Paul’s Place building as DfE – with the aim of relocating policy roles to the capital.

The BIS closure programme, announced by perm sec Martin Donnelly in December 2015, was highly acrimonious, with some opponents saying it appeared to fly in the face of the government's “Northern Powerhouse” devolution strategy.


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But in the wake of the EU referendum result, BIS was superseded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and responsibility for higher education was given to DfE. 

While around 180 former BIS staff in Sheffield opted to transfer to DfE, more than 80 left the civil service with severance packages of up to 23 months' salary agreed as part of the BIS closure programme.

According to the PCS union, the 18 Sheffield-based policy roles being advertised by DfE with salaries of up to £54,836 represent replacements for staff who left office as recently as November.

Marion Lloyd, PCS BIS Group president, said that the closure programme had been badly handled, with vacancies being advertised just weeks after staff lost their former roles.

“DfE are righting a wrong,” she said. “The BIS board insisted that policy would only be done from London, but there was no analysis to say whether they would be able to fill those roles in London before they made the decision.

“As a result, we’ve lost years of institutional knowledge. It’s also encouraging that BEIS has recognised that policy work can be undertaken from all parts of the country.”

Lloyd said morale had been badly affected by the way the closure plans were handled, in a way that was likely to make people reluctant to return.

Nick Hillman, director of think tank the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former aide to coalition government universities minister David Willetts, agreed the BIS office closure programme had been very badly handled and called for a review.

“Getting rid of higher education roles in Sheffield while in the midst of the biggest shake-up of higher education regulation for 25 years was a bonkers decision and it was never consulted upon properly,” he told CSW.

“The Department for Education was right to do a u-turn when they absorbed higher education, but I dread to think how much money has been lost in the process, how many civil servants have needlessly lost their jobs and how much institutional memory has been lost.

“It is imperative that senior civil servants, from Jeremy Heywood down, conduct a review to learn the lessons from the whole fiasco so that it is not repeated.

“Morale in the civil service, as we all know, is not as high as it should be and mismanagement like this harms it further.”

Civil Service World asked the DfE for a comment on its Sheffield recruitment drive, and for an indication of the total number of policy roles it was looking to fill in Sheffield, above and beyond the currently-advertised posts.

A spokesperson said: “We recognise the value of building a workforce in locations outside of London. We have increased our Sheffield workforce by 17 percent in the past year and continue to recruit for a wide range of roles including in higher and further education.”

 

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