Holiday homework for juniors

July 31, 1998

The spending review is out, ministers are shuffled, exams are marked and degrees collected. Education has three new junior ministers, Charles Clarke, Margaret Hodge and George Mudie.

George Mudie, who comes new to education, taking over Kim Howells's role as minister for lifelong learning, will have most homework to do. Dr Howells fought a doughty battle last winter when the lifelong learning documents were in draft, to limit the centralising control tendencies of his colleagues and strip out excess verbiage. George Mudie's trade union experience should help him devise ways of getting people who do not see education and training as being for them to take up new opportunities. In particular he will need to make the University for Industry a reality.

Margaret Hodge, as chairman of the education select committee, is already well up to speed. Indeed she has used that position, to an extent not everyone thought appropriate, to defend government policy - loyalty rewarded.

As minister for the New Deal Hodge replaces Alan Howarth, who steered this huge programme into existence with a minimum of fuss. Her replacement as committee chairman will be important. Select committees play a key role, especially when the government has a large majority, in ensuring the executive does not become cavalier with the legislature.

Charles Clarke, as a former president of the National Union of Students, is no stranger to the education world but has less experience of schools. With his time at the centre of Labour party planning, he is unlikely to feel uncomfortable with the growing centralism evident in the department.

In Scotland, Helen Liddell is going to have her work cut out opposing the tide of Scottish Nationalism. In this higher education is likely to prove a useful ally. The universities are wary of being pushed into a Scottish ghetto. They may be able to exact a price for their support.

As Parliament breaks up and ministers, who do not enjoy the same generous holidays as MPs, begin to read themselves in to their new roles, The THES will be offering serious food for thought.

Starting from next week, we will be running a series of five guest leaders written by some of the most thoughtful and interesting people in higher education. The series forms a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of higher education now that the shape of the Labour project is clearer.

The series starts with Howard Glennerster from the London School of Economics describing new challenges facing the welfare state, which set the broad context within which higher education must operate.

Michael Shattock, long-standing registrar of Warwick University, the biggest success story of all the post-war UK universities, follows with a look at the great strengths of British universities and a warning that these may be being compromised by present policies.

Stewart Wood, politics tutor and fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford and member of Nexus which is involved in Downing Street seminars, will examine the weakness inherent in higher education's continued preference for public funding.

Paul Heywood, professor of politics at Nottingham and an expert on devolution, will look at opportunities arising in particular from the government's regional policies.

The series ends with a warning from Kate Jenkins, independent consultant and governor of the LSE, of the threat to higher education if people working in it do not pay sufficient regard to the way student demand is changing and do not act on what they see.

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