What is Michelle Donelan’s legacy as higher education minister?

Minister heads for education secretary job having fought ‘culture wars’ against universities, but policy change may hinge on survival of Johnson government

July 6, 2022
Michelle Donelan speaks at THE Campus Live 2021
Source: Phillip Waterman

Michelle Donelan’s legacies as higher education minister will include an ultra-aggressive “culture wars” approach to universities, as well as plans to restrict student numbers – which are yet to be completed.

With Mr Johnson teetering on the brink as prime minister after chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid resigned, he promoted Nadhim Zahawi from education secretary to chancellor and Ms Donelan from higher education minister to education secretary. There has been no appointment to the post of higher education minister at the time of writing.

Ms Donelan is taking Iain Mansfield, her special adviser as higher education minister, into her new post, it is understood. The former DfE civil servant was special adviser to Gavin Williamson in his time as education secretary, before switching to work for Ms Donelan when Mr Williamson was sacked following the disastrous mishandling of school and exams disruption during the pandemic.

Mr Mansfield, the creator of the campus free speech bill which peers are currently seeking to amend in the House of Lords, is seen as the key figure on higher education policy in the Department for Education – and seen as central to the hostile coverage of universities in the right-wing press.

The most notable example of that reliance on press coverage came in recent weeks, when Ms Donelan wrote to vice-chancellors to suggest they pull out of Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter and other voluntary diversity schemes, as they were “in tension” with free speech. That was prompted by an article in The Sunday Telegraph that accused the sector organisation of “egregious wokery”.

Ms Donelan’s letter brought unprecedently fierce criticism of a minister from Universities UK and individual vice-chancellors, some of whom argue she uses hostile press coverage as part of a “modus operandi” to drive policy and boost her own political standing in the Conservative party.

Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher and a former adviser to Conservative universities ministers, said: “While some in the sector may be hoping that Michelle Donelan’s promotion to education secretary might help to turn down the heat on the emerging culture wars against universities, her elevation in government means she now has full control over the tone and direction of DfE policy and is no longer accountable to Nadhim Zahawi, who was seen as a mitigating influence in the department.”

With Mr Johnson’s government appearing that it could be on the verge of collapse, Ms Donelan’s time as education secretary may be short.

But if Mr Johnson survives and she continues in post, “we should expect her to look to make ‘quick wins’ in the part of the education sector she knows best – not least because she will be working with a host of new DfE ministers who will all need time to get up to speed with their portfolios”, Dr Beech said.

“As the minister who introduced and took the Freedom of Speech Bill through the Commons, Donelan has a personal reason to see this policy agenda through to completion,” she added.

One other legacy of Ms Donelan’s time as minister is the plan to cap student numbers in England – which sector figures expect to use outcomes measures currently under development, which include the proportion of graduates going into “managerial or professional employment” – and to introduce a minimum entry requirement, expected to be set at two E grades at A level.

Prior to the latest upheaval in Downing Street, sector figures had expected the government to confirm those plans before Parliament goes into recess, in its response to a consultation.

The government had said it would introduce a bill to implement the student number control and minimum entry requirement measures.

The plans would be delayed by the collapse of the Johnson government and – dependent on the ideological stripe of any successor government – the sector may be more hopeful of lobbying a new government against such plans.

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, a former adviser on universities and skills under the Labour government, said there had been “lots of arguments picked” under Ms Donelan, on free speech, value for money “and the promotion of higher technical qualifications and provision”, plus “some genuinely positive noises about lifelong learning and part-time study in HE too”.

“But any legacy really depends on longer term delivery and lots of these agendas remain – for now at least – incomplete and/or unfinished,” he continued. “There will be many in the sector that are grateful if some of these policy agendas never see fruition.” 

Professor Westwood continued: “The culture wars may have gone down well with some supporters but the absence of universities and colleges as a major mechanism for levelling up has also been a missing trick in their [the Johnson government] – and her – long-term agenda. That’s perhaps the biggest disappointment of all.”


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles


Featured jobs