BIS is still best placed to ensure fair shares

1st January 2010 at 00:00

With the exception of Lord Mandelson, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has few supporters.

Universities dislike it because schools, the primary source of initial entrants into full-time higher education, are funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Further education colleges and private providers dislike it because they also receive funding from the DCSF rather than a single department. And the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats dislike it, too.

The Conservatives have yet to declare their hand but a "Department for Schools, Universities and Science" and a "Department for Apprenticeships and Further Education" are possibilities. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, propose merging BIS with the DCSF to form a "Department for Education, Skills and Science". Sadly, the challenge BIS represents to Westminster and Whitehall goes unrecognised.

BIS makes it easy to compare public investment for tuition and financial support in higher education and in adult skills - #163;12.9 billion and #163;3.7 billion in cash terms, respectively. BIS makes it easy to demonstrate that a mass fee-loan system exists in HE (#163;2.6 billion per year) that is missing in adult FE (#163;20 million per year), and a mass system of maintenance loans and grants in HE (#163;3.9 billion per year) that is missing in adult FE.

And BIS makes it easy to show that it is the increase in the cost of financial support for full-time HE students - #163;500 million in 201011 - that has put pressure on the Higher Education Funding Council for England's (HEFCE) funding of teaching and the Skills Funding Agency's funding of provision.

BIS invites a comparison between the funding of adult skills with HE rather than the whole of FE with the whole of HE. This is important because between 2010 and 2020 the proportion of 17 to 20-year-olds in the population as a whole and the number in full-time HE in particular is expected to fall significantly. Taking into account HEFCE funding, fee loans and maintenance grants and loans, the fall in student numbers could lead to a saving of #163;1 billion in the cost of full-time HE in 2020.

Simultaneously, over this time pressure will grow for more public investment - especially in the form of loans - so adults can pay for upskilling. As the state pension age rises to 65 - and possibly 70 - by 2020, older workers will have to upskill just to remain employable.

Negotiating with the Treasury to retain "savings" from full-time HE and recycle them into adult FE will be a tough ask. But BIS is a better place for adult FE to be than under a single Department for Education, Skills and Science.

Falls in full-time HE numbers by 2020 will be mirrored by increases in primary school numbers, so the Treasury will call for savings in HE to fund extra primary places. Equally, adult skills would fare little better under a unified Department for Apprenticeships and Further Education.

Priority would always be given to 14 to 19-year-olds and, more generally, Westminster and Whitehall would reinforce the favouring of funding for schools and universities through a Department for Schools, Universities and Science.

'Adult Skills and Higher Education: Separation or Union?' by Mark Corney and Mick Fletcher is published by CfBT Education Trust

Mark Corney, Author of 'Adult Skills and Higher Education: Separation or Union?'

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