Abrasive player who hit sour notes

June 20, 2003

Few in higher education will shed tears over the exit of Margaret Hodge, reports Alison Goddard

When Margaret Hodge visited Cambridge University recently, she was greeted by protesters. They dusted off an old favourite chant in her honour: "Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! - Out! Out! Out!" Last week, Hodge laughed off the incident in an interview with The THES on the eve of the government reshuffle. But the slogan, a wish apparently shared by many in higher education, now appears prophetic.

After two years, Hodge is moving sideways from higher education to become minister for children. It is a move she relishes, but many of those she has left behind are equally pleased. Mike Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and incoming chair of the Coalition of Modern Universities, has been in the sector for 32 years, and he racks his brain to think of a more maligned holder of the post. "She is uniformly unpopular across the sector." Even Tom Wilson, head of the universities department of the lecturers' union Natfhe, and someone who confesses to liking Hodge as a person, admits: "I can understand how many people in the sector have been deeply offended about the things she has said."

By common consent, Hodge is good company, chummy and outgoing. But she also has a reputation for being confrontational, abrasive and opening her mouth before engaging her mind. Hodge says her friends and family help her put the resulting slings and arrows in perspective. When she has a really bad day, she plays the piano in the same way that other people hit the bottle.

On the day after she made her notorious quip about "Mickey Mouse" degrees, the sound of Hodge's piano must have woken the neighbours in the Georgian crescent in Islington she calls home. She told the House of Commons education select committee: "If you do not have a course of sufficient intellectual rigour with a clear purpose, it is a Mickey Mouse degree that should not be offered by a university." She then linked this comment to a list of universities with high dropout rates, including the University of East London in her Barking constituency, and accused them of setting up students to fail.

It went down rather badly. The comment is labelled "indefensible intellectually" by Mike Thorne, UEL's vice-chancellor. But he has the grace to concede: "I think she got carried away with the rhetoric rather than being malicious." Other vice-chancellors are not so forgiving. One, who wishes to remain anonymous, observes she was the first minister of state to attack whole parts of the sector. "Many institutions with a track record of widening participation invariably have problems with retention - to call them Mickey Mouse degrees is appalling," he says. "She doesn't know what she's talking about, and she's damaging staff and students."

It was precisely this sort of comment that so incensed Clare White, editor of London Student , that she set up "Hodgewatch". Dubbed "the online monitor of the minister for higher education's constant ignorance", it features an image of Hodge with whiskers and mouse ears. White says Hodge "has not shown students any respect as voters, and that's kind of unusual for a politician. Her ideas are quite mixed up, and she's extremely tactless."

More than 2,000 students signed Hodgewatch's petition demanding "a minister prepared to listen to our concerns who will take the student funding review seriously". It stated: "We believe that Margaret Hodge is currently failing and insulting students with her outdated views and refusal to treat students like every other voter."

Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, admits that Hodge has been happy to engage in dialogue with the NUS, but she still acted as though she had not listened to what she had been told. "She said students 'had a ruddy good time'. They don't. They work long hours and have a great fear of debt. She seemed to think that was not the case at all." Everyone in the sector, it seems, can point to at least one Hodge remark that makes their blood boil.

But it was a different story when Hodge started the job two years ago. Following in the footsteps of Tessa Blackstone, former master of Birkbeck College, London, and with little experience of the sector, Hodge was well received and was admired for her accessibility.

Driscoll says Blackstone was a hard act to follow but adds: "To be fair, when Margaret Hodge started she was open about that. She would often turn up and say that she was in listening mode." He pauses before observing: "I'm not quite sure what she heard."

A member of new Labour's liberal elite, Hodge is passionate about improving the lot of of the poor. She credits her family background as a wealthy heiress émigrée for allowing her to devote her energies to public service.

She was born in Egypt in 1944. Her father, Hans Oppenheimer, was a German Jew who established a successful steel trading business in Egypt in the early 1930s and went on to become a millionaire. But the family fled Egypt after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 prompted a wave of anti-Semitic attacks.

In 1949, the family arrived in Britain. Five years later, Hodge's mother died and she was packed off to boarding school in Oxford, which she hated. She went on to study at the London School of Economics.

Hodge's passion for politics started early. She became a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament activist at 16 and joined the Labour Party at 18. She subsequently got involved in local politics on a friend's recommendation, in an effort to keep herself sane while changing the nappies of her second child.

In 1982, Hodge was elected leader of Islington Council. In the years that followed, she ignored the attacks of a hostile press to fly the red flag from the town hall, while her forthright views earned her the nickname Enver Hodge, after Enver Hoxha, the dictator of Stalinist Albania.

But Labour's election defeat of 1992 persuaded Hodge to ditch her hardline leftwing politics in favour of "new realism". She built a friendly relationship with Tony Blair and still lives with her husband, a circuit judge, in the same Islington crescent as the Blairs did before their move to Downing Street.

By the time Labour swept to power in 1997, Hodge's political reinvention was so complete that she was disappointed not to have been given a job in the new government. Instead, she was appointed chair of the House of Commons select committee, overseeing investigations into teacher shortages and further education before being appointed a junior minister responsible for early-years education. She took responsibility for higher education in June 2001.

Hodge had a higher profile than any previous incumbent of the post. Yet despite this and the 100-page white paper published in January, she is still not credited with achieving much for the sector. That is not to say there haven't been successes during her time - she mentions "achieving the best-ever settlement for higher education in the comprehensive spending review" - but she is not widely seen as being responsible for them.

The extra investment for research, for example, is perceived as stemming from the influence of the prime minister and chancellor Gordon Brown. The setting of differential fees also came from Downing Street. Their repayment after graduation is viewed as the influence of the education minister Charles Clarke.

Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University, believes that Hodge has to a degree fallen victim to a culture of complaint that has built in the sector. Although he is critical of the overall vision of higher education - "the weakness of her and the government's approach to universities is that it is too utilitarian" - he argues that Hodge has not been given sufficient credit for her efforts. "She recognises that universities need more money. This seems to be a great strength," Bogdanor says.

He also praises her courage in attempting to make the universities confront hard facts. "Many vice-chancellors refuse to face reality and have not been sufficiently constructive towards the government," he says. "It is understandable that ministers can be abrasive." One otherwise critical vice-chancellor concurs: "She does not flinch from a fight," and confesses:

"We'll never be satisfied with ministers frankly. They are going to be the alibi for all the ills that befall universities."

Hodge is readily associated with one achievement that she is particularly proud of - increasing funds for widening participation. Yet those institutions that attract large proportions of students from the lower socioeconomic groups feel that she is elitist. Like her, her four children studied at universities she would describe as being "top" or "best": Bristol, Leeds and East Anglia. It's the sort of language that rankles many of those struggling to achieve the goals she has set. "By proclaiming virtues of the best, everyone else is consigned to the rubbish heap," one vice-chancellor notes.

According to Driscoll: "There was a sense in our sector that she had little regard for modern universities' achievement in widening access and she cosied up to a small group of universities for whom she acted as a cheerleader and marketing director." He adds that the last straw was when Hodge was quoted in a national newspaper advising students not to go to former polytechnics. "Under her watch, a large share of funding has been concentrated in a small elite," he says.

Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, agrees:

"It's disappointing that she was not more supportive and positive about many of the universities that are making a contribution to widening participation and the government's social agenda. She extolled the virtues of only the research universities."

Furthermore, the money that Hodge made available for improving access came at the expense of teaching funds. As Universities UK points out:

"Mainstream teaching does not cost less because support for widening participation students costs more."

The issue remains a political hot potato, even after Hodge's departure.

Saddled with pushing an unpopular free-market agenda, can the new incumbent, Alan Johnson, the former employment minister, manage to take on such challenges while making more friends than enemies?

Driscoll insists that the universities desire a better dialogue in future.

"The whole sector wants a positive and constructive relationship with whoever is in the difficult role of developing a vision for British higher education, making sure we can be successful not just for the few but for the many, and that we can be successful on the global stage," he says.

"That is a big challenge, and it needs a big person to deliver it."

Almost 40 years after graduating, Hodge says she still has nightmares about failing her university finals (she got a third). It seems higher education has always held mixed memories for her. During a more peaceful visit to Cambridge, when she was greeted by warm handshakes rather than chanting protesters, she met Paul Lewis, the student union president. He recalls a typical Hodge gaffe: "While talking to a group of students she said: 'Higher education is not my priority. Primary education is my priority'."

As Hodge settles into her new job spending more time with the nation's children and the sector gets to grips with Johnson, perhaps the nightmares will end.

Additional reporting by Mike North.

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