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Oops. Cameron dismisses the one man indispensible to rapid reform of student fees

What is the single most toxic issue facing the Coalition today – student fees.

And who is the single most important person in steering the fees policy through to safe harbour – Stephen Marston, the civil servant in charge of universities.

You may well ask therefore why the government cannot say today whether Marston will be at his desk on Monday. For without him, the chances of the government having a coherent policy to present to the House of Commons before Christmas seem extremely slim.


Marston is the Director General, Universities and Skills at the Department of Business Innovation and Skills. Or at least, he was until this morning. His post, along with two others, have today been combined into one, the new Director General Knowledge & Innovation. Today that post was awarded to Adrian Smith, previously Director General, Science and Research.

In other words, the science guy got the job. The Browne guy didnt. And Marstons post has been abolished.

This doesnt necessarily mean that Marston himself will be made redundant. He could be offered another post in the civil service. But the one thing he cant be offered is his existing job – that has gone.

Smith now has to take over Marstons responsibilities. His appointment has been welcomed by scientists. And he was previously vice chancellor of Queen Marys, so its not as if hes ignorant of the issues in the universities. But that is long way from having Marstons grasp of the detail of the proposed reforms, or their internecine politics, or his network of functioning relationships.

To avoid losing all Marstons expertise, BIS has a number of options. It can offer Marston a dedicated HE role under Smith – ie a demotion. Im not sure if the civil service does that kind of thing and I doubt Marston would accept it. Or BIS can fudge the issue by leaving Marston in post for as long as it needs him. In this case of course, his post is not really redundant and the personnel people will be having kittens about a claim for constructive dismissal. Or BIS can offer him an external consultancy. All these options are problematic, dependant on Marstons goodwill and probably dont avoid dislocation of the policymaking process – after all, you can hardly pretend Smith does not now have responsibility in this area. Perhaps today the personnel people are talking the options through with Marston.

The worst case scenario for the Coalition, and far from unusual in these situations, would be for Marston to accept that he lost and decide to move his career on. In that case, he may not be at his desk on Monday.

All this is fine from the point of view of the civil service personnel handbook. Another person takes over the reins. In due course, the policy machine starts to hum smoothly along again. But what that fails to take account of is the incredible velocity with which the politicians want to drive through the reforms. If they cant get a package of reforms on to the table within a couple of weeks, the headlines will begin to contain the words “Coalition”, “crisis” and “fees”.

My colleagues at Research Fortnight today sought reassurance from BIS that Marston would remain for long enough to steer through the Browne reforms. Indeed, we asked simply whether BIS was sure Marston would be in post tomorrow. But there was no reassurance. All we got was, “No decisions have yet been taken about the timing of the new structure or the transitional arrangements.”

It seems spectacularly careless of David Cameron to have let this happen. The Prime Minister made the effort to get his own private photographer onto the staff at Number 10. But he forgot to make sure that the civil service held on to the man who is, from a political point of view, arguably the most important official in the country right now.