Theresa May's higher education shake-up makes BIS Sheffield closure look "perverse" – former BIS adviser

Former special adviser to universities minister David Willetts says moving higher education policy to the Department for Education creates an "extra layer of uncertainty" at a time when institutional memory is needed

BIS Sheffield staff on strike earlier this year as the closure of their office is announced. Image: Amerjit Basi

By Rebecca Hill

15 Jul 2016

Theresa May’s decision to move higher education into the Department for Education will be a major blow for the staff facing redundancy at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ Sheffield site, a former BIS special adviser has said.

The Sheffield office, which employs around 250 staff, is due to close by 2018 as part of former business secretary Sajid Javid’s plans to slash BIS spending by 30% to 40%, and many have staff already received their redundancy papers.

However, the new prime minister’s major overhaul of Whitehall has seen the plan’s architect moved to communities and local government and BIS’s policy portfolio split across three departments.

New Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy swallows up DECC and BIS — full details and reaction
BIS Sheffield closure confirmed – full details and reaction from staff, unions and MPs

But speaking to Civil Service World, Nick Hillman – who served as the special adviser to former universities minister David Willetts – said the shift would probably have come too late for the Sheffield staff, whose main focus is on higher education. And he contrasted it with DfE’s approach to offices in the same city.

“I do feel sorry for those Sheffield civil servants who’ve been handed their redundancy papers, because the DfE chose to keep its Sheffield office open," he said. "The DfE and BIS officials pretty much sit next to each other in Sheffield, which dates from the time when they all used to be in the same department."

Hillman argued that it had always been a bad idea to close an office with a large amount of institutional knowledge while the Higher Education Bill, which is due for its second reading next Tuesday, was making its way through parliament. Now, he said, that decision seemed “even more perverse”.

“You’ve got this extra layer of uncertainty and extra need for institutional memory,” he said. 

“Every time higher education bounces around Whitehall – and it has bounced around – that institutional memory gets lost, and so it makes the Sheffield decision look even more perverse. But I don’t know if it can be undone now.”

He said that he was not opposed to the idea of a single education department in principle, but was concerned about how much time and energy it would take up, and that he wasn’t “totally convinced it solves the problem of joined up government” because it just created new boundaries.

“You abolish a boundary between schools and higher education by putting them in the same department, but you create a new boundary between universities and all the policies that BIS had research, innovation and Local Economic Partnerships – that affect universities a lot,” he said.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged that there could be some benefits for institutional memory in the long-run.

“The problem with higher education being in BIS is that officials will work on higher education for a year, and then they work on apprenticeships, then on shared parental leave, then on trade and investment – so they aren’t higher education specialists,” he said.

“In the education department, they could well become education specialists. Even if they keep changing jobs, which is what civil servants do all the time, at least it will always be within education.”

But, he added, “there’s a hell of a lot of turbulence between here and there”.

Share this page