Dr Howells, 51, looks back fondly to his days as a student rebel fighting for more democracy in the education system and dismissing fine art as bourgeois individualism. Nowadays, the MP for Pontypridd seems to be made of less idealistic stuff. Late last year his remark that the word socialism should be "humanely phased out" prompted outrage from erstwhile trade-union comrades.
The journey from Hornsey College to the Department for Education and Employment took in an English and history degree at Cambridge College of Art and Technology and a doctorate at Warwick University, where his daughter is now a student. Before becoming an MP in 1989, eight years after joining the Labour party, the lorry driver's son from the Cynon Valley in South Wales worked as a steelworker and miner, then as a researcher and television and radio presenter.
His plans for further education include a drive to improve understanding and use of information technology. Too many lecturers - and ministers - are, he says, incapable of turning on a computer, let alone using it to develop Labour's plans to make the much-discussed concept of lifelong learning a reality. In true New Labour style, he calls for public-private partnerships to ensure that a series of reports on the importance of IT in FE are translated into action.
He promises he will have no truck with colleges that pack in students on low-cost courses while neglecting the costly subjects such as engineering and maths needed to boost industry. He calls for more collaboration between institutions, but faces the task of explaining to colleges how, after four years of often cut-throat competition, peace should now break out.Reuse content