Michelle Donelan takes over from Nadhim Zahawi as education secretary after just two years as a minister, rewarded for her loyalty and her embrace of the culture wars and curbing of universities that have been a hallmark of Boris Johnson’s administration.
Moving up from her current role of higher and further education minister, Donelan will have to quickly take charge of a mess of unfinished business left by Zahawi in his brief 10-month tenure, most notably the schools bill that last week the new chancellor was forced to gut after opposition from former ministers and supporters in the Lords.
But Donelan has impressed those who work with her for her no-nonsense attitude, and as someone who – unlike Zahawi or Johnson – isn’t interested in the trappings of office or making friends.
As universities minister she appeared more often to be advising young people not to go to university, repeatedly claiming that young people were being “conned” into taking on debt and decades of repayments for degrees that might not be worthwhile.
Under her watch the student loan system in England has been reformed so that the less well-off will pay more back for longer, and plans are being made to restrict loans for prospective students without qualifications or on courses deemed to be low quality.
Donelan has also led a political assault on the number of first-class degrees that universities award and castigated those with high drop-out rates. Her belief in taking direct action saw her phone vice-chancellors directly with complaints or requests. Most recently Russell Group vice-chancellors were surprised to have Donelan call them pushing for them to make more undergraduate offers this year.
Last week Donelan further riled university leaders when she sent them letters making what they saw as unwarranted demands. Vice-chancellors wrote back saying that “an important line has been crossed” with Donelan’s letter. But a public fight with vice-chancellors does no harm in the eyes of the current cabinet.
Donelan herself went to a state school in Cheshire, and studied history and politics at the University of York, but her first public foray into politics included speaking at a Conservative party conference at the age of 15 – younger by a year than the precocious William Hague.
Her career saw her working on marketing for World Wrestling Entertainment in the US. Returning to the UK, she eventually fought and won the Chippenham seat in Wiltshire in 2015, turning it into a safe seat in 2017 and 2019.
As education secretary Donelan will have to oversee the higher education free speech bill going through parliament, as well as the schools bill left in tatters by Zahawi, having removed the clauses that seek to give the DfE more authority over the sprawling and lightly regulated academies sector in England. And soon Donelan will have to navigate a teachers’ pay rise and potential strikes in the autumn if her offer proves inadequate.
Zahawi has left another timebomb: the GCSE and A-level results due out in August, which will see top grades come crashing down after two years of pandemic-induced inflation, causing unhappiness and bad headlines. But Johnson and his administration may not last – and whoever is education secretary in August when the results are published will be anyone’s guess.