Freeman’s science minister return bid rebuffed

George Freeman said that his offer to return as the UK’s science minister has been declined, as the university sector continued to await political leadership.

Mr Freeman, who resigned on 7 July in a final flood of departures that forced Boris Johnson to announce that he would step down as prime minister, said a day later that he would be prepared to come back in light of “the huge issues that need managing this summer”.

However, he tweeted on 11 July that the offer had been “declined”.

The decision left the English higher education sector without dedicated ministerial leadership, as a replacement for Mr Freeman is yet to be confirmed. The other post covering the sector, that of higher education minister, has been vacant for the best part of a week, with previous appointee Michelle Donelan having been promoted on 5 July to education secretary – a position she subsequently resigned from less than 36 hours later.

The Cabinet-level posts covering the sector are filled, however, with James Cleverly newly appointed as education secretary and Kwasi Kwarteng continuing as business secretary.

But the vacancies will raise questions over the likely progress on key questions facing the sector before the election of a new Conservative leader.

In the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, negotiations over the UK’s post-Brexit participation in the Horizon Europe research funding programme remain deadlocked, and the Treasury is reportedly reluctant to commit funding to a domestic alternative.

Also expected in coming months are a review of sector architecture led by Sir Paul Nurse, an independent review of UK Research and Innovation under Sir David Grant, and a review of research bureaucracy led by University of Birmingham vice-chancellor Adam Tickell.

In the Department for Education, A-level results day is just weeks away and a campus free speech bill is moving through Parliament. Universities are also awaiting the outcomes of consultations on the potential introduction of minimum entry requirements and student numbers caps in the English sector, although these may now be delayed.

Mr Freeman has said that he is backing trade minister Penny Mordaunt for the leadership, while Ms Donelan has come out for chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, the former education secretary. Mr Kwarteng has thrown his weight behind foreign secretary Liz Truss’ bid.

MPs will vote to whittle down the candidates over the next week before the decision goes to the Tory membership. A new leader is expected to be in post in September.

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