Who’s in Sunak’s government? Meet the ministers set to shape HE

[Times Higher Education] Who’s in Sunak’s government? Meet the ministers set to shape HE

New UK prime minister Rishi Sunak’s ministerial teams at the Department for Education and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have slowly begun to take shape – with big implications for the universities sector.

With issues such as student number controls, free speech on campus and the perennial concerns of fees and funding still largely unresolved, decisions made by those now occupying the seats of power will affect the sector for years to come. 

But the ministerial-merry-go-round of recent months – leading to new, unfamiliar job titles and a scattering of responsibilities across new ministerial briefs – has led to uncertainty and confusion over who exactly is doing what for the sector.

Here Times Higher Education breaks down who the new (and old) faces are and what exactly they will be doing in their roles. 

Department for Education

Gillian Keegan, education secretary


UK Parliament

Key HE facts:  Left school at 16 to start a career as a car factory apprentice Graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business studies from Liverpool John Moores University and a master’s in strategy and leadership from London Business School Served as parliamentary undersecretary of state for apprenticeships and skills from February 2020 to September 2021

Responsibilities:  As secretary of state, she has overall responsibility for the department  This means she oversees the work of her junior ministers on higher education as well as skills 

What might she do in the role?

As a former apprentice, Ms Keegan’s appointment has been seen as a sign the government will concentrate more on non-HE routes into jobs and careers, although she did combine her own placement with a degree and is supportive of degree apprenticeships. Her experience so far has also been on the vocational side of education, overseeing moves to make apprenticeships more flexible. She has had little to say about higher education in her political career so far but is not thought to be a strong proponent of the “culture wars”. She may be tasked with enacting some of Mr Sunak’s priorities for higher education, such as “phasing out” degrees perceived to have poor outcomes and expediting the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

Robert Halfon, minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education


UK Parliament

Key HE facts:  A graduate of the University of Exeter, where he studied a BA in Politics and MA in Russian politics and Eastern European politics Challenged compulsory membership of the National Union of Students, taking the campaign to the European Court of Human Rights A former minister of state for skills under Theresa May Chaired the education select committee for five years

Responsibilities:  His job title lists “skills, apprenticeships and higher education” – an improvement on Andrea Jenkyns’ title, which only had “skills”. He is also a minister of state, a more senior position than Ms Jenkyns held Among his key responsibilities are higher education quality and reform, relationship with the Office for Students, the government’s plans for lifelong loan entitlements, widening participation and higher technical education

What might he do with the role?

Mr Halfon’s enthusiasm for apprenticeships has reinforced the view that this will be a key priority for the department. He has called for 50 per cent of those going into higher education to take a degree apprenticeship as part of a drive to better link higher education to getting a job. Mr Halfon has accused universities of using international students as “cash cows” and said there should be more of a balance with domestic students, raising concerns he may support moves by the Home Office to limit student visas. 

Other education ministers

Responsibilities for aspects of higher education are more spread out across the department than has been the case previously. Clare Coutinho, a mathematics and philosophy graduate from the University of Oxford, will look after freedom of speech in education as part of her role as parliamentary undersecretary of state for children, families and well-being. Baroness Barran, the new parliamentary undersecretary for the school system and student finance, will, as her title suggests, be given responsibility for the Student Loans Company. 

Department for Business

Grant Shapps, business secretary


UK parliament

Key HE facts Studied at Cassio College, Watford and then gained a business and finance diploma at Manchester Polytechnic

Responsibilities  He has overall responsibility for the department and also leads the government’s relationship with businesses. Has been tasked with “ensuring the UK remains at the leading edge of science, research and innovation” This includes the UK’s membership of Horizon Europe (or lack of), the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, the Innovation Strategy and the R&D People and Culture Strategy

What might he do with the role?

Mr Shapps’ attention is likely to be mainly taken up by the energy part of his brief, given the crisis much of the world finds itself in. He also faces continued challenges to research funding, given the likelihood of cuts to public spending that are set to be announced by the chancellor Jeremy Hunt. However, unlike his short-lived predecessor in the department, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mr Shapps is seen as more likely to want to fight the Treasury to retain commitments to invest in science and research as a key driver of economic growth. 

George Freeman


UK parliament

Key HE facts Studied geography at the University of Cambridge Made minister for science, research and innovation by Boris Johnson in 2021 Resigned in the dying days of Mr Johnson’s regime and was rebuffed when he offered to return

Responsibilities This is where it gets complicated – Mr Freeman said he had returned to his former role as science minister, but that position is still occupied by Nusrat Ghani The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has repeatedly failed to confirm the new ministerial briefs.

What might he do with the role?

Assuming he does regain some of his former responsibilities, Mr Freeman will need to again pick up the challenge of the UK’s association to Horizon Europe, which has still not been resolved post-Brexit. He will also need to work out a new target for research and development spending, after an accounting change led to the country unexpectedly reaching its previous goal years early. After several reports found Britain is stalling in its ambitions to become a science superpower, Mr Freeman will need to consider where to go next in terms of science strategy.

Nusrat Ghani


UK parliament

Key HE facts Studied a BA in government and politics at Birmingham City University and a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Leeds Made science minister under Liz Truss and remains in that role under Mr Sunak – for now

Responsibilities While serving under Ms Truss, Ms Ghani was minister for science and investment security This gave her responsibility for science and research, Horizon Europe membership, innovation strategy and research and development – what elements of this brief she will retain are still to be confirmed

What might she do with the role?

See above if Ms Ghani stays in post. Her role encompassed investment security for the first time, hinting that she would be given greater say over how to protect the UK’s technological and scientific advancements. One of Ms Ghani’s few outings as science minister so far was to reaffirm commitments to raise spending on science by £20 billion a year.