Papers reveal Thatcher's persuasive powers

January 4, 2002

The year after ending free school milk, Margaret Thatcher was dethroning yet another apparently immovable feature of the landscape of British education - Lord Robbins.

The cabinet papers for 1971, released this week at the Public Record Office under the 30-year rule, show Mrs Thatcher as secretary of state for education dumping the "Robbins principle" governing university numbers for the same reason that she had axed school milk - the absolute priority given to a building programme for primary schools.

Edward Heath's Conservative government had been elected in 1970 committed to cutting public spending and taxes. Thatcher had to offer cuts from other programmes before winning an increase for primary schools.

In a memo dated June 21 she proposed to trim 20,000 from the projected number of university students in 1976-77, including an unspecified reduction in the number of postgraduates. She argued that "while these measures would be strongly criticised as a breach of the Robbins principle that opportunities of access to university education for suitably qualified young people should remain constant over the years, they would save £105 million".

Commenting on the document, in a note to the prime minister, cabinet secretary Burke Trend - later master of Lincoln College, Oxford - she pointed out that this could hardly be considered a cut in student numbers since there would still be 321,000 students in 1976-77, compared with the current (1971) figure of 237,000.

Mrs Thatcher got her way at the cabinet meeting of June 24. It was not all bad news for higher education. Also included in the package was an extra £20 million for polytechnics and colleges of further education.

Mrs Thatcher was already contemplating one of the changes in policy that would come to pass in her time as prime minister, telling Mr Heath at a meeting on New Year's Eve 1970 that "in the long term she thought that it might be desirable to take polytechnics out of the control of local authorities and bring them under the aegis of a new polytechnics grants committee. She would not wish to bring them under a single grants commission covering universities as well".

In July, Mrs Thatcher went to the cabinet's home and social affairs committee with proposals on student union reform. She reported that while intended to provide recreational facilities and societies for students, unions "tended to be controlled by politically conscious cliques; and money was being diverted from its proper purpose to the support of political demonstrations and extreme leftwing activities".

Her proposal was to make institutions responsible for social facilities and make subscriptions voluntary by removing them from the local authority fee and making a corresponding increase in the student grant. It was agreed to take steps to "educate" public opinion before introducing the idea to student unions.

Mrs Thatcher was also embroiled in debate about the future of the research councils. Publication of the Dainton review, recommending the creation of a "Board for Research Councils", was delayed pending the completion of a review of government research and development chaired by Lord Rothschild, head of the government's Central Policy Research body.

Lord Rothschild opposed publishing Dainton. Mrs Thatcher disagreed, saying the document "is bound to leak eventually". She also feared criticism over suppression.

The government issued both reports together in November.

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