New department urged to recognise true value of higher education


Leaders of the higher education representative body GuildHE have reacted with astonishment to news that the Department for Innovation Universities and Skills is to merge with the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to form a new Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

Alice Hynes, GuildHE’s Chief Executive, said the change could either be a “great development” arising from DIUS’s success in showing how universities and colleges already drive innovation and are central to Government economic agendas, or it “could risk higher education being lost in a ‘skills for yesterday’ training agenda in which innovation and invention is stifled by outdated notions of the needs of industry”.

She added: “Just as we await the ‘Future of HE’ vision emerging out of the debate John Denham has started, the baton moves on. It is critical that Lord Mandelson maintains the drive for innovation and the recognition of higher education as a fuel for that forward momentum.

Higher education is agile enough to respond to this change provided it is not forced to concentrate on managing funding cuts rather than on inventiveness and development. Higher education institutions have already proved themselves better at self regulation, better at productive expansion, and better at regional economic impact than other parts of the economic community.

“We continue to argue that a better skilled and a more aspiring workforce will create a wealthier society. But it is equally important to look beyond the current economic crisis and aim to provide education that will lead to a wiser and more sustainable community. The increasing number of applicants for our courses agree – they want the opportunity for personal growth as well as improving their skills and knowledge. We hope that the new DBIS will see the sense in supporting these values.”

Professor David Baker, GuildHE Chair and Principal of University College Plymouth St Mark and St John, said: “My GuildHE colleagues will be glad to see the new department’s stated commitment to investment in higher education and to widening participation. The emphasis on the SME and on enterprise in general suggests support for a connection between higher education and the professions and micro businesses that many of our graduates move into. GuildHE institutions deliver education for successful graduate professionals in industries as diverse as animation and animal husbandry, but equally importantly into social professions like teaching and nursing. The connections that have begun well in the work DIUS has done should not be lost.”

And he warned: “Higher education, even as a driver in the knowledge economy, is more than another economic production line. The key factors that will make the difference are innovation, creativity and enterprise. Those are not delivered by ‘systems’ but by diversity, serendipity and organisations that bring about change. This upgraded department must be prepared to support forward-looking higher education environments in a social networking/ social enterprise age.

“GuildHE higher education providers are well placed to work with DBIS and play their part to build for a sustainable future. But they are presently restricted by a cap on student numbers. DBIS must address this. The new department has a complex task, in the face of pressure from our global competition, to keep the UK’s world class higher education status and ensure our students and our society gets the best chance.”