It’s a big job.
I don’t think for a second that appointing a new Minister for any permutation of further and higher education is even in the top half of the number 10 to-do list today, but the appointment – when it comes – will need to be delicately considered.
The new minister will be responsible for the DfE response to the passage of the long delayed Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. Currently awaiting a date for Grand Committee in the Lords, this divisive piece of legislation can best be described as a highly political bill that is most likely to founder on technical issues. David Willetts’ germane question of “how will it work” cuts to the heart of something that really seems designed to be debated rather than implemented. A new appointee will need to be as passionate about this cause as Michelle was, but will also need to be sure-footed enough to adapt the current text into something that has a chance of being delivered.
The new minister will also be presenting a new Higher Education Bill to parliament, which will contain the remaining “plumbing” needed to deliver the Lifelong Loan Entitlement and the measures needed to deliver the proposals in the Higher Education Reform consultation. I’d also expect to see some of the “reducing burden” narrative made concrete – one of Donelan’s innumerable “working groups” is currently analysing the various competing data and regulatory regimes in the tertiary sector and has a brief to simplify things. This will be a hugely technical bill, but the points of discussion – access to higher education, basically – are intensely political. No Conservative MP really got into politics to set a cap on the aspirations of the children of their constituents after all.
A level results day – 18 August – will be circled in red on every DfE calendar. This year will see a steep planned decline in grades, and will come against a backdrop of selective universities becoming increasingly less keen to recruit home students. This is the first cohort to sit in person exams since 2019, and will find themselves working much harder than their older siblings for much less reward and much less opportunity.
And for those who do get to university, the cost of living will see rises in food and accommodation costs that will not be matched by a rise in maintenance loan amounts. Parents – even those earning substantially less than the national median wage – will be expected to make up the shortfall while struggling on their own account. There will be calls for support from providers, parents, and students – and it is unlikely that the money will be there.
Runners and riders
It will be a hard job to fill. It has often been lamented that there is not a huge depth of untapped talent on the Government benches – and the sweet spot that combines some actual competence and ability to deliver with an unquestionable loyalty to Boris Johnson is almost entirely tapped out.
As this government limps on loyalty is likely to be the primary factor – nobody who has criticised the PM or government policy will get a look in. This rules out our usual peripatetic “supply minister” Chris Skidmore, a very heavy hitter with clear ability, but someone who has effectively sat out most of the Johnson administration and has been gently sniping from the sidelines on Net Zero and science policy.
With DfE now entirely devoid of Commons ministers – Will Quince and Robin Walker having stepped down this morning, with Alex Burghart following them in the afternoon – it will be harder to expect remaining ministers to cover. There was a world in which Michelle Donelan retained her current brief alongside the Secretary of State role, or where Alex Burghart saw his former portfolio (which already covers large chunks of skills policy) expand. But there is too much stuff to cover (the Schools Bill is a bit of a mess right now, for instance…) and even “detail-oriented” Michelle would struggle to stay across everything.
With most meaningful scrutiny of bills taking place in the Lords these days, could we see a minister sitting in the Other Place? I somehow doubt Jo Johnson would take his brother’s calls, but stranger things have happened. And if not, there are a number of very capable peers with higher education experience – though it is likely that most would balk at current DfE policy priorities.
Usually in these circumstances we look to the Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPSs) – on the lowest (unpaid) rung of the ministerial ladder these are usually new, keen, and loyal. Any seriously ambitious incumbents would probably wait out the dying days of this regime if they could (expect a lot of calls going to voicemail today) but there are enough that know that the great offices of state are a distant prospect to take this particular hospital pass.
Donelan’s PPS (and, other than her, the last MP standing in DfE) is Sara Britcliffe – notable for being the youngest Conservative to be elected in 2019 in the very red-wall-ish Hyndburn, and notable to me as the least active member on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech Bill Committee. She only attended 7 of 11 sittings, and did not speak once – I feel like this may be a record of some sort.
But she should – as PPS – know enough of the current issues to get through the portfolio until Johnson inevitably resigns or the government collapses. These are slim pickings, I’ll grant you, but we are not exactly faced with much of a choice.