How a handbag cast its shadow on places of light and learning

May 18, 2001

Stephen Court sketches the ups and downs that have characterised the relationship between politicians and academics over the last century.

It is an irony that the prime minister with perhaps the loftiest vision of the university was Benjamin Disraeli, who never went to one. "A university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning," he told the House of Commons in 1873.

Certainly Disraeli's views on the university are printable. Margaret Thatcher's probably are not. In 1985, when the Oxford chemistry graduate was in her second term as prime minister, members of her alma mater voted down a proposal to give her an honorary degree. Lord Annan, a Cambridge man, naturally, said in Our Age : "It was an unparalleled and mean-spirited snub."

Thatcher showed what she thought of the higher education establishment when in 1992 she became chancellor of the University of Buckingham, the United Kingdom's only private university.

If the Oxford dons - protesting against funding cuts and the Conservatives' attitude to higher education - had hoped to warn Thatcher off the academy, they had little effect. Under the lead of education secretaries Sir Keith Joseph, Kenneth Baker, John MacGregor and Kenneth Clarke, the Conservatives subjected the world of the university to a series of upheavals that have shaped the system we have today.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the level of recurrent funding per student was relentlessly pruned while student numbers shot up. Higher education was transformed into a mass system as the Conservatives determined to improve Britain's economic performance by increasing the number of graduates with the knowledge and skills needed for modern employment.

Legislation tumbled out of Parliament. The 1988 Education Reform Act took the polytechnics out of local education authority control and put them under the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council. It replaced the University Grants Committee - which had kept politicians at arm's length from academe - with the Universities Funding Council. Academic tenure was abolished.

The Education (Student Loans) Act of 1990 paved the way for loans to replace in part the student maintenance grant. The move has led to many students graduating in substantial debt and, many say, has been exacerbated by Labour's imposition of tuition fees, although in Scotland these have now been replaced by a graduate endowment scheme. In 1992, the Further and Higher Education acts doubled the number of universities by allowing polytechnics to seek university status and the right to award their own degrees. The higher education funding councils were established.

Higher education was put under the microscope. The first research assessment exercise was held in 1986. Since then, the RAE has been held every four or five years, and on the RAE depends the allocation of almost all recurrent funding for research. The assessment of teaching quality in every university department began in 1993, with threats that funding would be withdrawn where quality was unsatisfactory. In the 1980s and 1990s, the student-to-staff ratio doubled.

It was all so different in Disraeli's day - and Edward Heath's, for that matter. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 20,000 students in full-time higher education. By the early 1970s, that figure had risen to 235,000. But it was still nowhere near the 1 million-plus in 1997, when Conservative leader John Major was defeated by Labour's Tony Blair in the general election.

Major was determined that one in three young Britons should go to university. He achieved that goal, which Labour has since increased to 50 per cent by 2010. Finding a way of funding the larger system, however, remains a dilemma for all political parties. Despite a gradual rise in the level of government grants to universities since 1997, Labour, for example, has still to come up with a costing for its expansion plans.

Major's commitment to higher education was all the more striking given that, like Disraeli, he never went to university. In all, seven of the 20 prime ministers in the 20th century did not go to university. Of the remainder, ten went to Oxford and three to Cambridge. The Liberal leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman was the only one to attend a non-Oxbridge university, Glasgow, but he also went to Cambridge. Of the 12 Conservative prime ministers in the past century, eight went to university, as did three of the five Labour premiers and two of the three Liberal prime ministers.

In the parliamentary parties, the proportion of graduates has risen steadily. In 1906, 57 per cent of Conservative MPs had been to university, compared with none for Labour. By 1997, 81 per cent of Tories and 66 per cent of Labour MPs were graduates. Those prime ministers, such as David Lloyd George and Sir Winston Churchill, with no university education were not averse to appointing ministers with an academic background, although Churchill once said: "No part of the education of a politician is more indispensable than the fighting of elections."

Under Lloyd George, the president of the Board of Education - the forerunner of the secretary of state for education - was the Oxford historian H. A. L. Fisher (a point of trivia: Thatcher is the only education minister ever to become prime minister). Fisher was one of the MPs who held a university seat: he represented the combined English universities.

Between 1918 and 1945, there were seven university constituencies, returning a total of 12 MPs. A transferable vote system was used in the multi-member constituencies. In addition to the combined English universities, there were also seats for:

* Cambridge

* Oxford (the Oxbridge seats tended to return Conservative, Liberal or Independent candidates)

* London (candidates tended to be Labour MPs - including the author H. G. Wells and social reformer Sidney Webb - and Independent)

* Combined Scottish universities (MPs included the writer John Buchan)

* Wales

* Queen's University, Belfast.

University representation, which entitled graduates to a vote in the constituency where they lived and for their alma mater seat, was abolished in 1948.

Another academic-cum-politician, Rab Butler, president of the Board of Education in Churchill's wartime coalition government, put through the widescale education reform of 1944. Butler, who had been a lecturer in French history at Cambridge, went on to become chancellor of the exchequer in Churchill's 1951 administration and, later, home secretary and foreign secretary. He was passed over for leadership of the Conservative party, but received a peerage for his pains. Butler ended his career as master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

The Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann, who at one stage stood as a candidate for the Oxford University seat and later became Lord Cherwell, served as paymaster-general in Churchill's wartime and postwar administrations. Churchill had high regard for him, and referred to him as "the Prof". Cherwell was influential during the second world war as a scientific adviser.

But the academic who arguably exerted greatest influence over public life in the 20th century was the Cambridge economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes, who had worked as a civil servant in the Treasury during the first world war, was a Treasury adviser in the second. His ideas on tackling unemployment and government intervention in stimulating the economy were commonly accepted by western governments.

Partly because of the activities of dons such as Keynes, Cherwell and architect of the welfare state Sir William Beveridge, the political and social stock of academics rose in the 20th century. Nevertheless, the proportion of graduates in Clement Attlee's Labour government immediately after the second world war was low - 50 per cent of ministers, compared with the more usual levels of about 80 or 90 per cent.

In the 1960s, academics rode high in the cabinet in Harold Wilson's first Labour administration, as they do now - six current members have taught at universities. Wilson himself had been a fellow of University College, Oxford. A number of his ministers had donnish or intellectual backgrounds, including Tony Crosland, who as education and science minister established the polytechnics. As Annan noted: "Cabinet meetings resembled seminars."

Not all academics-cum-politicians were socialists, as Butler demonstrated. Conservative MP Edward Boyle, who was minister of education under Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home, became vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds. And the leading Tory historian Lord Blake was pro vice-chancellor of Oxford University between 1971 and 1987. But even his influence was not enough to protect the universities from the handbagging they received under Baroness Thatcher.

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