Howard Davies: Four pressing tasks for Kelly

Click to follow

Another year, another Secretary of State for Education. When I was director general of the CBI, Ruth Kelly from The Guardian grilled me at press conferences.

Another year, another Secretary of State for Education. When I was director general of the CBI, Ruth Kelly from The Guardian grilled me at press conferences. She then moved to the Bank of England, as I did, where I found her writing the Inflation Report. Then, a few years later, she was a Treasury minister and oversaw the Financial Services Authority when I was its chairman. She is following me around. People will start to talk.

It is safe to assume, though, that she will not wish to spend as much time as her predecessor was obliged to do on university matters. The bruises left by the Higher Education Act's painful passage through Parliament are taking time to heal. Both Charles Clarke and Alan Johnson, who did most of the heavy lifting, have been removed from the scene of the crime, but many Labour backbenchers are still sore - and quite unconvinced of the merits of the policy. (Tory backbenchers are sore for a different reason: they do believe in top-up fees and can't understand why they were instructed to oppose them.)

So a wise minister - and she is that - will leave universities to get on with the grubby business of setting fees, negotiating their access agreements with OFFA (Office for Fair Access) and constructing bursary schemes. There is little the department can do to facilitate those processes, so let's hope they keep their distance.

There are other more pressing matters on which ministerial decisions are needed. Perhaps the most important is the Tomlinson report on school examinations, where it is hard to see how to reconcile the department's support for his recommendations with No 10's insistence that GCSEs and A-levels will remain as they are. But there are, though, four higher education issues that could go wrong if they are not carefully handled, and on which Kelly would be well advised to call for early briefs.

First, post-qualification admissions. It is easy to agree that a post A-level process would be fairer and simpler than the current system. It is less easy to see just how this can be achieved in practice, without shortening the A-level course, or delaying the start of the university year. The latter could be problematic for universities, which take a large number of overseas students. Ministers need to get a grip of the issue, before we sleepwalk into a new system which is even worse than the old.

Second, university entry benchmarks. The latest upward revision, driven by the inclusion of GNVQs, made no sense to Russell Group universities and provoked an outburst from Oxbridge college heads about Government tanks and croquet lawns. Kim Howells responded with a calming and conciliatory speech, but that is no substitute for clarity about just what the benchmarks are supposed to mean, and why they are published in the current form.

Third, visa charging. The Home Office's plans for a sharp increase in student visa charges could not have come at a worse time, with the plunging dollar putting British universities at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their US counterparts in important overseas markets. The Department for Education and Skills must agree with universities on this, and surely do. But their sympathy has delivered nothing so far. This will be an early test of Ms Kelly - can she use her Treasury experience to get the Home Office to back off - at least partially? That nice Mr Clarke must understand.

Fourth, the Bologna Accord. The Department tells universities that there is nothing to worry about, and that a five-year minimum time for a Masters will not be mandated across Europe. I'm not so sure, unless ministers take more of an interest than they have done so far. There is a growing consensus in favour of something along those lines. There are important Bologna meetings in prospect. She should be there, defending our system, and showing that the issue is of political importance here.

The Vice Chancellors' new leader, Drummond Bone, who takes office this year, will make these points firmly, following his December election to the chair of Universities UK. The UUK electoral procedure was quite original. I received a ballot paper with three names, filled it in and sent it off. Then - by return - I received the manifestos of the three candidates. A kind of load, fire, aim approach. Maybe we should rename the organisation U-Ukraine. I'll be checking Drummond's complexion carefully in the coming months.

The writer is the director of the London School of Economics

Comments