IAIN GRAY, the former Lifelong Learning Minister, was the highest profile casualty in last week's Holyrood elections, losing his Edinburgh Pentlands seat by 2,111 votes to David McLetchie, the Tory Party's Scottish leader.
Mr Gray was the only Cabinet minister to be defeated at the polls.
Speculation now centres on whether his former department, which is in charge of further and higher education, will be amalgamated with the Scottish Executive's education department, which is responsible for schools and young people's issues.
The creation of a department of enterprise and lifelong learning in 1999 was widely regarded as entirely a political creation to mollify Henry McLeish, who then held the portfolio and who had lost out to Jim Wallace, the Liberal Democrat's Scottish leader, in failing to be appointed deputy First Minister.
The split in the education brief was tenaciously adhered to by Wendy Alexander when she inherited the enterprise post. She argued that higher education in particular was crucial to the economy. But the Executive's subsequent lifelong learning strategy stressed the importance of schools as the foundation for later learning.
A merger would create a natural ministry for Nicol Stephen, who has served as a junior minister in both areas. Although Mr Stephen is regarded highly by Jack McConnell, the prospective First Minister, his fate will depend on the outcome of coalition talks between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
The Scottish system has been out of kilter with arrangements in the other home countries. England has a Department for Education and Skills while Wales established a Department of Education and Lifelong Learning. Northern Ireland has two ministries, for education and for employment and learning.
A decision to bring the departments together may have been signalled by the decision of Ed Weeple, head of its lifelong learning group, to retire early.
Leader, page 24