On the 24th May the new collation government released details of its plan to make £6.2 billion of savings (see HM Treasury press release). As part of this package, The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – headed by Business Secretary, Vince Cable – will make savings of £836 million, equivalent to 3.9% of its budget. One of the areas identified by BIS for ‘savings’ is the higher education budget, which will lose £200 million. Also targeted are the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) in England. These are the strategic drivers of economic development in the English regions. They will lose £74 million from BIS as well as a further £196 million from other government departments.
So what is the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills charged with doing? Well, according to the BIS website it is charged with
…building a dynamic and competitive UK economy by: creating the conditions for business success; promoting innovation, enterprise and science; and giving everyone the skills and opportunities to succeed. To achieve this it will foster world-class universities and promote an open global economy.
In describing what BIS does, BIS states that it
…brings all of the levers of the economy together in one place. Our policy areas – from skills and higher education to innovation and science to business and trade – can all help to drive growth.
In other words, the BIS is intended to be a key player in affecting the UK’s long-term rate of economic growth. Since 1948 the average annual rate of growth of the UK economy, as measured by constant-price GDP (real GDP), is 2.4%. Of course, a key question is how we might do better. But, there is a significant disagreement amongst economists about the role that government should play in advancing long-term economic growth. This debate largely centres both on how activist a government should be and on the types of policy that a government should pursue.
The ’case for industrial activism’ is made in the leading article of The Independent on 25 May. It nicely encapsulates some of the policy issues surrounding long-term growth and, in reflecting on the cuts to BIS, identifies the role it believes BIS should play.
…we need to think clearly about the proper role for the state in the private sector. There is no future in a return to the heavy-handed statism of the 1970s or the discredited policy of trying to “pick winners”. The guiding principle as far as industrial policy is concerned is that government should do what the free market will not, or cannot. The function of the DBIS should be to increase Britain’s long-term growth potential.
This means supporting industries that cannot get funding from the capital markets and funding important research that would otherwise go unperformed. Most of all, it means education. Britain cannot compete successfully with the rising economic powers of China and India, which have access to a vast pool of cheap workers, on labour costs. Our only hope for advantage lies in our human capital. That makes the case for intensive vocational and advanced skills training.
Therefore, industrial activism, as envisaged by The Independent is about correcting for market failures and ensuring that there is sufficient investment in education and training.
The Confederation of British Industry, which describes itself as the ‘UK’s top business lobbying organisation’, in its press release of 19 May identified the following as ‘essential’ for delivering growth:
• Establishing competitive business taxes
• Developing a strong banking system
• Skilling students for the future and strengthening apprenticeships
• Attracting and cultivating enterprise and industry
• Prioritising energy security
• Working towards a low-carbon economy
• Developing the infrastructure for economic growth
The CBI too identifies the significance of skills. But, it believes that in the previous decade growth was driven too much by government spending (as well as by unsustainable growth in the financial sector). It argues that the private sector, along with trade, needs to be ‘the growth engine for the future’.
What is interesting about the proposed cuts to BIS is that they very visibly draw attention to the differences that exist among commentators, industrialists and economists as to industrial policy. In particular, they ignite the debate about the most effective role that a government can play in promoting long-term growth. Don’t expect too much agreement any time soon!
Government announces £6.2 billion of savings in 2010-11 HM Treasury (24/5/10)
Private sector growth and public sector reform needed to restore economy CBI (19/5/10)
The case for industrial activism Independent (25/5/10)
Public sector deficit cuts: Higher education and RDAs hit hard in BIS efficiency savings plan eGov Monitor (25/5/10)
George Osborne outlines details of £6.2 billion spending cuts BBC News (24/5/10)
Government axes £836 billion from business budget Growing Business (24/5/10)
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills hit hard by spending cuts Training Journal, Martin Kornacki (24/5/10)
Business department hammered as Osborne swings the axe Management Today (24/5/10)
Big cuts signal end to activism Financial Times, Jean Eaglesham, Andrew Bounds and Clive Cookson (24/5/10)
Businesses take a pounding as coalition cuts hit home London Evening Standard, Hugo Duncan (24/5/10)
Vince Cable explains spending cuts u-turn Newsnight (24/5/10)
- What do you understand by long-term growth? How does this differ from short-run growth?
- Evaluate the argument advanced by The Independent for industrial activism? What sort of policies might fall under this description?
- In considering the CBI’s list of influences on long-term economic growth outline what role you think government could play and what policies it could enact.
- Do you think the savings being made by BIS signal a new policy approach to delivering long-term economic growth in the UK?