Go back

Robert Halfon becomes latest minister with universities brief

Image: Chris McAndrew [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

But three DfE ministers have some higher education oversight in possible “recipe for chaos”

Robert Halfon has been confirmed as the new minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, becoming the third minister responsible for universities this year.

On 8 November, the Department for Education confirmed that Halfon had been appointed to the role in prime minister Rishi Sunak’s new government. Following a tumultuous period in UK politics, which saw former prime minister Liz Truss resign from her role to be replaced by Sunak, Halfon was appointed to the DfE as a minister of state last month. However, his brief was not confirmed until today.

The brief includes a broader range of responsibilities than his predecessor, Andrea Jenkyns: in addition to overseeing overall strategy for post-16 technical education, Halfon will also lead on higher education quality and reform, the government’s relationship with the Office for Students and funding for post-16 education.

Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow, was previously chair of the House of Commons education committee. During his time in the role, he frequently called on universities to improve their apprenticeship offer, and was a passionate campaigner against antisemitism on campus—regularly calling on institutions to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism. 

He returns to the skills brief after serving as the minister for apprenticeships and skills from 2016 to 2017 under former prime minister Theresa May.

Shared responsibility

Halfon will not be the only DfE minister with some oversight of higher education. While overall responsibility lies with education secretary Gillian Keegan, Diana Barran—who was reappointed as a DfE minister on 27 October—has oversight of student finance. 

Meanwhile, Claire Coutinho, appointed minister for children, families and wellbeing on 26 October, is responsible for “freedom of speech in education”, according to her list of responsibilities. A new bill addressing free speech in the higher education system is currently making its way through parliament. 

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the fact that several ministers have “big elements of higher education in their briefs…could be a recipe for chaos”. 

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight