Robert Halfon – there, and back again

England's higher education minister wants to find mountains; and then find somewhere where he can rest

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Never let it be said that Robert Halfon doesn’t have a sense of the fantastical.

His resignation – as an MP at the forthcoming election, and as minister effective immediately – was announced with a literary quotation:

I am with you at present…but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire…My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help…among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.

Though he admits that he feels more like Bilbo Baggins than Gandalf, his decision to move on with his next journey in life is just one of an astonishing 63 Conservative MPs choosing not to contest the next election. It is possible that his honourable and right honourable friends are beyond help.

As his finger slips into the One Ring, and he disappears, much to the surprise of the assembled hobbits of DfE, it is fair to ask how Halfon used the power when he held it.

For a man who once declared that “degree apprenticeships” were his two favourite words in the English language his real legacy – covering two stints as minister of state and several years as the chair of the Commons Education Committee – will be a contribution to the growing esteem in which decision makers hold vocational and adult education. Here, and in his tireless campaigning to root out antisemitism, or his parallel advocacy of freedom of speech, he would see his life’s work.

As a legacy, he presided over much of the development of the new system of funding tertiary education by credit value. The Lifelong Learning Entitlement, still somehow promised for 2025 albeit with only a handful of Higher Technical Qualifications rather than the full range of university modules as originally promised, must be seen at least partially as his handiwork. The legislative framework is there, but there is still little evidence of demand (DfE is currently handing out free HTQ modules).

He has not, it is fair to say, been much of a friend to the traditional higher education sector. He has presided over cuts to the value of home tuition fees, been less than effective in lobbying for the sector’s interest elsewhere in government, and all too often has been happy to lean into the wilder shores of the culture wars. In terms of building and maintaining the structures to support links between the sector and his favoured lifelong learning, he was reduced to attempting to persuade the sector to sort out a system of credit transfer.

To be fair, he was no Andrea Jenkyns. I mean, who could be? Neither was he a serial interventionist like Michelle Donelan.

Halfon would no doubt remind us that “if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world”. If you’ve been to any sector event in recent years you will have seen the minister on screen – usually extolling the virtues of vocational and lifelong learning. We never got to sit down with him at the Festival of Higher Education, but if he is ever passing our way, don’t wait to knock! Tea is at four; but he would be welcome at any time.

One response to “Robert Halfon – there, and back again

  1. 63 Conservative MPs choosing not to contest the next election does indeed feel like a very high number, but it’s interesting to note that in 2010 100 Labour MPs chose not to seek re-election.

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