Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Interview - No, Minister: The Outsider on the Inside: News

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Interview - No, Minister: The Outsider on the Inside: News

Article excerpt

Mandarin, v-c, quality chief, maverick: Roger Brown bids farewell to the sector. Matthew Reisz writes.

Next month, one of Britain's most prominent commentators on higher education will step down and pursue other interests.

Although he describes himself as "basically what the Americans call a 'policy analyst'", Roger Brown has been a senior civil servant, the one and only chief executive of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics, the head of the predecessor to the Quality Assurance Agency, the vice- chancellor of Southampton Solent University - and, since 2007, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University.

When his contract comes to an end in November, he leaves the sector satisfied that he has "explored in great depth" all the central issues in British higher education - "how the thing should be funded, how quality should be assured, how we should tackle widening participation" - and set out his detailed answers in books and articles.

But Brown also leaves higher education feeling "pretty pessimistic" about the sector, essentially because the goal of "accommodating a larger student population within perceived expenditure limits and without loss of quality" cannot be achieved "without an increased level of public expenditure and an increased level of attention to quality. Neither of these have we really had."

He now has "virtually no contact with David Willetts", the universities and science minister, although they did meet to discuss quality assurance while the minister was in opposition, and "little contact with civil servants, partly because I'm not sure they have much influence on what happens anyway".

Brown adds that he "used to be on very good terms with the main civil servant (responsible for higher education), but I'm not sure I could now tell you who that person is". While obviously disappointed that his ideas have not proved more influential, he emphasises that he has now "literally lost interest" in "other people's answers" and so it is time to move on.

Brown's first significant involvement in higher education came when he was working at the Department of Trade and Industry under Lord Young of Graffham, who wanted to be secretary of state for education after the 1987 general election. When he failed to get the job, he launched a pre-emptive raid on educational territory.

This led to a Pounds 20 million project to promote links between businesses and universities - incorporating the earlier Teaching Companies Scheme, whereby the government overcame what Brown sees as a market failure by "subsidising employers to take on young graduates in a technical area such as engineering while being supervised by a local university".

Summoning the black arts

Brown says the next secretary of state in the department, Nicholas Ridley, "was very much against this kind of scheme, so he and I had stand-up rows about it. But I managed to use the black arts of the civil servant to keep the full detail from him - and, as a result, the scheme (now called Knowledge Transfer Partnerships) is alive to this day."

He also had a ringside seat for many of the dramas of the Thatcher years. He recalls being able to squash one of her "wild ideas", the proposed relocation of the British Library to County Hall, vacant after the abolition of the Greater London Council. However, he was impressed by her treatment of a colleague who was "called across to No 10 to tell her what the DTI was doing about the British Steel strike. When (my colleague) told her, she got more and more upset and eventually he said to her: 'Prime Minister, are there any facts which would enable you to take a different view of the situation? …

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