Michelle Donelan: ‘My door is always open’

University Business interviews the universities minister about autonomy, freedom of speech and student homesickness

Anyone who took on a new job just as the pandemic was unfurling will have some sympathy for the minister of state for universities. Michelle Donelan had barely arrived at the Department for Education (DfE) and unpacked her favourite mug than the higher education sector was capsized by Covid. Just one month after her appointment in February 2020, UK universities locked down – and the Cheshire-born history graduate turned MP for Chippenham found herself with a challenge that arguably dwarfed anything that had crossed her predecessors’ desks (there have been 11 universities ministers since the post was created in 2001).

And on top of this? All those big Conservative Party manifesto commitments to reform HE, some of them pretty contentious to the very people she needed to work on them with.

At the tail end of summer, University Business interviewed Michelle Donelan, over video call, in her Chippenham constituency. She has the classic politician’s mix of courtesy, self-assurance and caution – yet she’s also quick to laugh, and exudes a genuine willingness to be of service. And she has a message for university leaders: get in touch.

Vice-chancellors often tell us that they are aspiring to deliver the best and constantly looking for ways to improve their offering to students. Could you define what you mean by ‘low value’? And do you think vice chancellors currently understand what you mean?

Revolutionising our higher education and further education, by bringing them together more, provides a fantastic opportunity for vice chancellors to embrace that and work with us to make sure that our higher education system is much more flexible.

And that’s the feedback I’ve had off vice chancellors – they’re really welcoming of that fact, because, yes, there’s been loads of them out there trying to do that. But unless our loan system supports individuals to be able to take career breaks and do short courses, it is actually not really possible for a number of people, especially those that have mortgages or children and other things later on in life. Taking a career break for three years to go and do a degree is quite an ask. But it’s necessary to be reskilling and upskilling throughout their career, given the way that the economy works now, and the labour market, and jobs. And also integrating more with employers to ensure that courses, whether they’re in higher education, or further education, do lead to jobs.

And so actually, I’m getting really good feedback on the bill that is passing through.

When we talk about value, what we’re talking about is a quality offer, that is offered to all students, a focus on completion rates, so that actually they can unlock future jobs, and that they do lead to good graduate outcomes. When people go and take a degree, there are many reasons for that, and, absolutely, a love of learning and a love of the subject, can be at the heart of it. But also, I think most people expect that it will lead to the career that they want to go into, or into a graduate job, and add value to their lives. And it’s a significant investment at the end of the day, both by that student and also by the taxpayer.

Proudest moment? I don’t really think we should take pride

About freedom of speech. It feels like there’s a tension between university autonomy and the DfE’s concerns about freedom of speech. You were accused of washing your hands of the Bristol anti-semitism drama in the select committee hearing in April. And you pointed out the universities are autonomous. So how do you see that tension playing out? How involved will you/can you get in university freedom of speech issues?

Universities are autonomous, they’re independent in legislation as you and your readers know only too well, and we don’t want to inhibit that at all. That’s one of the things that makes our system so fantastic. At the same time, of course, we want to stand up for academic freedom and freedom of speech for students and visiting speakers, which is why we’ve got the legislation that’s currently going through Parliament on that. In regards to the Bristol case, I have spoken to the vice-chancellor. I’ve sought absolute assurances from the vice-chancellor that whilst, yes, their investigation is comprehensive, that it is swift as well, because I think there is a lot of questions to be answered and students rightly need to know what is happening and what process is being followed.

But on freedom of speech and academic freedom – these are important areas. It was in our manifesto, we’re making good on that commitment in our legislation to tackle a problem that various lecturers, students and individuals have brought to my door and discussed with me, and this will protect and ensure that they can have the ability to study or to teach as they see fit.

What did you make of the letter from the Common Sense Group of backbench MPs to Gavin Williamson in July criticising the Race Equality Charter? And what role do you see the Race Equality Charter playing in HE in the future?

In terms of racism, you know, we, as a government and myself as an individual, absolutely abhor it and believe there is no place in our universities for racism – we want them to be tolerant places where individuals from any background or any ethnicity can go and learn and enjoy some of the world’s very best universities, and we wouldn’t want anything to tarnish that reputation either. But every university is, as we’ve said, autonomous and independent, they will have their own processes for dealing with these things, and, and for ensuring that they have stamped out any form of racism. And we believe that that’s the correct way to address this. But obviously, it’s monitored by the Office for Students as well. And I’d be more than happy to pick this issue up with anybody that wanted to discuss it.

Michelle Donelan, universities minister – interview by University Business
Michelle Donelan with Boris Johnson in 2014. Photo by Gareth Milner via Flickr

During the pandemic you had a taskforce comprising HE representatives. Does this pandemic taskforce maybe represent a new way of working with universities? Can you tell us a little bit about your working relationship with universities?

I only actually was appointed in this job last February, so just before the pandemic hit. But I’ve always had the approach of having an open door policy, and being as accessible as possible, so that I can be helpful and work as constructively as possible with the sector. And that’s right the way from vice chancellors, to lecturers and students as well – my door is always open. The taskforce is going, still, and we kept going throughout the year – it’s a group of heads from mission groups. But at the same time, week in, week out, I am having regular meetings with vice-chancellors and lecturers and others on a range of subjects, right the way through from admissions to free speech to our Turing initiative, on lots of different topics. I think it’s really important that we do work together constructively to deal with some of these challenges and opportunities.

So if there’s a vice chancellor reading this interview, who thinks ‘I’d love to speak to Michelle Donelan’ – how would they go about that?

They could either email the Department for Education or write a letter to me, and we can set it up quite easily.

Former universities minister Chris Skidmore, who we interviewed last year, told us: “The Office for Students (OfS) is probably trying to do too many things. I think we’re going to have a review of all these regulators off the back of what’s happened during the pandemic”. Would you agree?

Well, the Office for Students does have a broad remit and a very important remit. And every year the Secretary of State sends a letter outlining exactly what the top priorities we would like to see happen and I have a very constructive and close working relationship with the Office for Students – we meet with them every two weeks, or more frequently if there is a need – but it is important that none of these bodies are overstretched, of course, and that they are focusing on some of the key priorities. But we’ve seen that happening. And the Office for Students throughout the last year have been very focused on supporting universities, but also students throughout the pandemic, making sure that quality is upheld with their monitoring process. And they’re currently consulting on increasing the bar, if you like, of quality. So there’s a lot of work being undergone by the Office for Students, but they’ve certainly got the capacity and the drive to meet that.

I look forward to being a minister in a non-pandemic era

You studied history and politics at the University of York. What did you love most about those years?

I absolutely, passionately love history and, no secret, politics. So I really did relish the opportunity of studying these topics. And it was wonderful to explore a new city. I was from Cheshire originally, and to form new friendships, some of those I’ve kept with me for my entire life… yes, wonderful experience. But I must admit, I did get very homesick, I’m afraid. I probably made it worse because I could just hop on a train easily. There’ll be a lot of students that find going to university quite a daunting experience. They’ve never lived away from home. And they might be quite family-orientated or orientated to their friends. I did come home quite a bit. And kept in touch. Obviously, it’s a lot easier now with cheap mobile phone credit and all of those things.

Any particularly memorable moments?

I think I’ll always remember getting there and that overwhelming feeling as you’re first there, and you’ve worked so hard to get there – wonderful. Everybody that will go this year: just really savour that moment. They’ve worked so hard, particularly this cohort with such a difficult last year, and so well done and pat on the back to them. And graduating as well, of course, I feel very sorry for those students that didn’t get to have those in-person graduations – a graduation ceremony is a massive part of the university experience. Now we’re unlocking, hopefully some of those universities will be able to offer that in person. I know some of them have delayed them to autumn. So lots of different experiences, I think.

Were there any particularly inspirational figures for you at university?

Not that stand out, I don’t think. I had various lecturers that were exceptional, and very personable, and very invested in their subject and their students.

And was there anything about your degree, or your university experience that you felt was missing?

I don’t think so. There are certain areas of history I would have liked to have had the opportunity to study but obviously there is a limited amount of time.

I always say that you shouldn’t go into politics, if you want to; you should go into politics, if you have to. Because it’s more than a job, it’s a lifestyle. And you have to enjoy every moment of it

Were you encouraged at university to go into politics? Do you think universities should be encouraging more women into politics, or positions of power?

Well, I always say that you shouldn’t go into politics, if you want to; you should go into politics, if you have to. Because it’s more than a job, it’s a lifestyle, which, unless you had this burning desire to do it, like a calling, would be very demanding. And you have to enjoy every moment of it. But I think really what universities should be doing is making sure that the young people have all the information available as to not only what the course involves, but also where it will lead, those outcomes, so that they’re not taking courses on any false pretences or thinking that the course will lead them to somewhere that it won’t, and making sure that you support students as much as you possibly can then to get them to complete that course. And I will work closely with the OfS on that and adding to access and participation plans in that area.

When you started your role, did you get any good advice from former universities ministers?

I did, I sat down with a number of the former universities ministers and also other ministers, to get some top tricks and tips in terms of the most effective ways of working, and the most effective ways of delivering and working across government as well – which has been very useful during the pandemic where we’ve had to work considerably at pace, working across government to secure funding from the Treasury, for instance.

Was there any one bit of advice that stuck in your head when you took on your new job?

I think every minister has a totally different style and a different approach. So you carve it out and make it your own. And the last year has been completely unprecedented. So in normal years, ministers can very much focus on, you know, a few of their key priorities to deliver. Whereas, the last year, I’ve seen my job much more as prioritising support throughout the pandemic and making sure that we are looking after the interests of students and supporting universities as well as delivering on our manifesto commitments and making sure that we’re doing all the things that we promised the public we would do. So it’s been more of a juggling act than ever before. Some of the tips that I may have been given on how to do that are probably coming into their own.

Most challenging times for you so far?

I think the most challenging thing is that it has obviously been very difficult on students and I don’t gloss over that by any stretch of imagination, and the ability to support them throughout those challenging things, when some of the things were not in our control and were very unpredictable given the unprecedented nature of the virus.

How would you like the sector to remember you?

[laughs] Sounds like I’m dying!

Way, way, way in the future.

How I would like to be remembered would just be in terms of trying to get the sector through throughout a very difficult period of time, but also delivering on some key things such as the Turing initiative, which is a fantastic scheme that has gone above and beyond and actually is a fantastic success story. Now, over 40,000 students will go abroad to over 150 destinations, which has beaten all expectations and really countered all the some of the myths and the criticism that was levelled against it. And things like the free speech bill, which have honoured our manifesto, whilst also dealing with the pandemic.

And your proudest moment?

I don’t really think we should take pride, you know. I think my proudest moment would just be the success of students and lecturers who have worked exceptionally hard in the last year in really difficult times. And I look forward to being a minister in a non-pandemic era, hopefully, as we navigate out of this. We’re certainly not out of the woods yet. But we are on course.


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