Q&A with Baroness Bakewell

We speak to the president of Birkbeck, University of London on part-time study, older learners, Barack Obama and tuition fees

October 16, 2014

Source: S. Ireland/Rex

Baroness Bakewell is a Labour peer, journalist, novelist and president of Birkbeck, University of London. She made her name as a television presenter on arts and talk shows from the 1960s onwards, including Late Night Line-Up and Heart of the Matter. She is a supporter of Part-Time Matters, which champions the value of part-time study.

Where were you born?
In Stockport, on the border of Cheshire and Lancashire.

How has this shaped you?
I have always felt myself to be a northerner, and identified with the problems that beset northern industrial communities. I took the name Baroness Bakewell of Stockport even though I have lived in London far longer. I feel I have inherited some of the grit and willpower of northern women.

What role did higher education play in your career?
I owe my entire career to the 1944 Education Act. I won a county scholarship and entrance to Newnham College, Cambridge, and my life was transformed. I met the brightest of my generation and shared with them a love of ideas and a curiosity about the world.

Should there be funding for older people who want to pursue an academic qualification?
I am absolutely convinced that older people should be supported by government grants in their wish to study. It helps keep your brain active, your social contacts alive and your spirits high. It will save money to keep older people fit and active.

Your predecessor as president of Birkbeck was Eric Hobsbawm, who taught you at Cambridge. Was that a surreal feeling?
It was a great honour: I had Eric as my supervisor when I read history at Cambridge and always had the highest regard for his scholarship, his outlook and his wonderful books.

You have criticised the lack of older women on UK television. Is this still a problem?
We shall find out! I sit on the Communications Committee of the House of Lords, and our current inquiry will be into women in news and current affairs broadcasting. Things are getting better all the time, but perhaps too slowly. I am lucky to be still working.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
I watched Barack Obama make his way up the slippery political ladder: I read his books and saw that he is a thoughtful and fair-minded person. Unhappily, many of his initiatives have been stalled by Republican efforts. And he is often derided as being indecisive. I prefer to think he is giving long, meaningful consideration to the decisions he has to take. But these top political roles are becoming impossible to fulfil, modern society being so complex and the demands so many and so varied.

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
I regret that government policy for education focused on withdrawing the block grant and [charging] students…huge sums to go to university. This is a huge reversal of what happened in the second half of the 20th century when it was realised that society needed a class of highly educated people to lead it, and society was willing to pay. Now, too often, higher education is seen as a good investment for private money, bringing cash returns for mediocre teaching.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000 fees, would you go again?
I have no idea how I would respond: some of my grandchildren have gone into debt to go to university; others have left education to try a life of travel and casual work.

What keeps you awake at night?
I sleep happily and deeply.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be many things: actress, writer, film star…who doesn’t when they are in their teens? I’ve managed to narrow it down. I’m still a writer.

What’s your biggest regret?
I wish I had persisted in acquiring some musical skills: I gave up the piano at 15 years of age. I sang in choirs until I was 20.

Have you ever had a eureka moment?
No. I’m still waiting.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was not very attentive to my studies. I was so overwhelmed with the social life on offer – drama groups, parties, love affairs – that I neglected my work. Though I did go to lectures: I heard Pevsner, Leavis, Plumb, Annan…

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Coming from a frugal northern background, I was shocked when, at a party on a barge, one of the drunken students tossed a gramophone into the Cam.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
I shape my working life exactly as I wish: I’m old enough now to pick and choose. At 81, I’ve no time to waste on things I don’t enjoy.


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