In the news: Baroness Ashton

May 3, 2002

Junior education minister Baroness Ashton has had a busy couple of weeks defending the government's higher education policies to sceptical peers.

Last week, she took on Lord Dearing and other heavy-hitting peers - including lords Moser, Layard, Puttnam and Bragg - who warned that the UK's universities were in a bad way, lacking essential money for teaching and research.

It must have been a tall order for Baroness Ashton, whose ministerial brief is school standards and early years education. Yet she will have scored some points for her guarded candour in admitting that higher education was a "mixed picture".

If that were not test enough, this week saw fellow Labour peer and chief executive of Universities UK Baroness Warwick have a go at the government over the money the sector needs to widen participation among the poor.

The House of Lords has long been a friend to higher education: one has only to remember the epic battles over the controversial Teaching and Higher Education Act in 1997-98. While things are relatively calm - education-wise - in the upper chamber at the moment, it is unclear how long this will last in the face of continued government parsimony towards higher education. This, combined with government attempts to redraw higher education to its social engineering template, could pitch Baroness Ashton into the thick of it.

Baroness Ashton worked briefly for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament after graduating with a BSc from the University of London. She was chairwoman of Hertfordshire Health Authority until she was ennobled in 1999. Her parliamentary highlights include launching Curriculum Online and promoting a scheme to award grades to children for language ability.

She is married to Evening Standard political columnist Peter Kellner.

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