Michelle Donelan, born in 1984, decided at the age of six, during Margaret Thatcher’s last year in power, that she wished to be a politician.
When she was 15, Donelan addressed the Conservative Party Conference; aged 26 she fought a then safe Labour seat, Wentworth & Dearne; and five years later, in 2015, she entered the Commons by taking Chippenham off the Liberal Democrats.
She is now, as Minister of State for Higher and Further Education, pushing through reforms of university education which are of tremendous significance, but as yet unnoticed by the wider public, whose attention is more likely to have been caught by Partygate or the invasion of Ukraine.
According to another major Conservative figure in the university world, Donelan’s role is
“a bit Hermione Graingerish from Harry Potter. She’d be the one with the attention to detail telling the men to get their act together; the one who knows all the spells.”
The Government wishes to stop universities offering useless courses which load those who take them with debt, without leading to worthwhile careers.
This is not an attack on the arts. The three worst subjects at this country’s universities are business studies, computer science and law, which as one authority points out have “a very long tail of appalling results”.
Six computer science courses have drop-out rates of over 40 per cent, compared to a national average of about ten per cent: “You’re selling students a dream and not delivering.”
British universities have in recent decades seen scandalous grade inflation: the pretence that students are doing much better than they really are, with at the top of the scale, ludicrous numbers of first-class degrees awarded, and at the bottom, courses on which students are completely neglected, and either drop out or else receive such worthless qualifications that they have little or no prospect of obtaining graduate-level jobs, and also virtually no chance of repaying the student loans they have taken out.
Donelan is at the heart of the effort to put this right. On 31 March she and Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, wrote to Lord Wharton, chair of the Office for Students, telling him that
“we welcome the OfS’s recent consultation on quality and the proposals to set stringent minimum numerical thresholds for student outcomes on continuation and completion rates and progression to professional employment or further study as part of your principles-based quality requirements”
It will at once be apparent that this is a field in which worthy aims are expressed in the most dreary terms. Not the least of Donelan’s qualities is her ability to put up with such language. The letter went on:
“In cases where low and unacceptable quality is confirmed, action should include, where appropriate, financial penalties and ultimately the suspension or removal of the provider from the register (and with it, access to student finance).”
The OfS today start putting “boots on the ground” – inspectors – in order to determine drop-out rates, and whether those students who stick it out to the end of the course manage then to get graduate-level jobs.
Universities which fail to achieve this for their students will be fined either half a million pounds or two per cent of their turnover, whichever is the greater. And if after two years they have failed to improve, they will lose student finance.
In other words, they will be forced to close. Donelan says she wants “real social mobility”, i.e. courses which set people on an an upward path, to replace the many courses which at present lead nowhere.
Here, it may be objected, is a big change from “learning for learning’s sake”. But universities have always been a mixture of pure and vocational learning, and it would be ludicrous to portray this as an assault on the former.
Donelan understands that students who sign up for vocational subjects do so in the hope of getting good jobs afterwards, and are being short-changed if they are so neglected at university that they learn next to nothing.
Universities will in future be expected to state, on their advertisements, the drop-out rate for each course, and the rate of progression to graduate employment.
Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee, says of Donelan:
“She’s very good on detail. She’s passionate about vocational education. She’s been very good on anti-semitism and freedom of speech in universities. She’s acted quickly in order to stop a camp fire becoming a bush fire.”
Halfon strongly supports her campaign to crack down on universities which fail to look after their students:
“I think she should be tougher. Students should get compensation if they don’t get proper face-to-face teaching.”
Donelan’s officials say she gets to grips with the detail: “She understands about system change.” Here is a minister who goes through her boxes, knows what she is talking about, is entitled to attend Cabinet, and can be expected to go higher.
What she has not yet demonstrated is an ability to communicate with the wider public. Her manner of talking is sincere but rather dry.
One of her fellow MPs in Wiltshire said of her:
“She’s very nice. Quietly capable and ambitious in an unflashy way. Paranoid she’ll lose her seat so very hard-working locally. Not clear what her overall philosophy is.”
Another colleague described her as “a normal person, very hard-working, her officials would definitely say that”.
Her first promotion, after winning Chippenham, was to the Whips’ Office. In February 2020 Johnson made her Universities minister, and in September 2021 she was promoted within the same department to Minister of State.
She attends Cabinet and can be expected soon to rise on merit into it. Meanwhile she is one of the workhorses on whom the levelling-up agenda of the Government depends.
It is not difficult to get universities to admit ever larger numbers of students. To get them to teach those students properly, and thereby equip them for fulfilling careers, is altogether harder, and that is the task to which she has devoted herself.
The number of degree apprenticeships has almost doubled since 2018-19, and she is determined to maintain that rate of growth.
Donelan was born at Whitley, in Cheshire, educated at the local comprehensive school, and read history and politics at York. She worked as a marketing assistant on magazines, and from 2010-14 as marketing manager for World Wrestling Entertainment, which as she drily remarks on her website “proves a bit too popular in the school democracy workshops I run”.
For over a century, British vocational education has been recognised to be deficient. In her maiden speech in 2015, Donelan said “vocational training need to be pushed and promoted, with the stigma challenged”, and this cardinal reform is what she now bending every sinew as a minister to achieve.