Which government department should run the universities?

I’ve just learned that the Austrian government has decided to merge its Ministry for Research and Science with its counterpart for trade and industry. The new department will be known as the Ministerium fuer Wissenschaft, Forschung und Wirtschaft -Science, Research and Business.

One of the areas that will transfer into the MWFW is responsibility for universities, including the technical universities. The only exception are the Paedagogische Hochschulen, or colleges of education, which will remain where they are in the Ministry of Education. Otherwise, the Austrian decision broadly mirrors the situation in England, where the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills looks after higher education.

Like a lot of people, I saw the mergers and renamings that led to the creation of BIS as effectively an expression of the primacy accorded to the economic function of higher education. I am inclined to see the Austrian shift as having a similar effect. I also think we should understand these changes as part of a more general European trend in the realignment of higher education and its dual functions of teaching and research.

The decision to leave the colleges of education under the Ministry of Education might also be of interest to others involved in teacher education elsewhere. In Britain, teacher education became primarily a university-based process during the second half of the last century, but there is no intrinsic reason why this should continue, and the Austrian decision to keep teacher education in the Ministry that runs schools is a reminder that there are alternatives to university-led ITE.