PM Wilson cheerful at cheap OU expansion

January 7, 2005

Official papers reveal the academic gem on a list of 'little things that mean a lot'

As befits that rarity, an ex-academic prime minister, Harold Wilson was immensely proud of having helped to create the Open University.

And, as shown by Cabinet papers for 1974 - released this week by the National Archives under the 30-year rule - he was also aware of its potential political uses.

Two months after his return to power in a minority administration that he knew must soon seek a more conclusive mandate, Mr Wilson sent Cabinet colleagues a list of "little things that mean a lot". This said these were matters that "though they may not be of major importance in the total context of government policy, arouse strong feelings in the country and among supporters".

He listed a number of political causes that might offer such political benefits in return for little public expenditure - among them the preservation of local breweries, concessionary fares for the elderly, abolishing hare coursing and the "expansion of the Open University".

In a subsequent memo to Reg Prentice, the then Education Secretary, Mr Wilson called the OU "one of the greatest achievements of our previous Government. It is vastly popular in the country - I found it always got a cheer at pre-election and election meetings".

Mr Prentice was happy to oblige, explaining on July 3 that he had visited the OU and "was greatly impressed by what I saw". He had said in confidence that he was ready to sanction an expansion in annual intake from 14,000 to 20,000 students, at an extra cost of £1.5 million over two years. The vice-chancellor, he said, was "well content".

Tom Wilson, Glasgow University's professor of political economy, was perhaps less content that year. As an active Conservative and frequent correspondent, on "Dear Ted" terms with former Prime Minister Edward Heath, he would have disliked the Labour victory of February 28 in any case.

But that election result also robbed him of a cherished project, an inquiry into the distribution of income in the UK. He had started urging it on Mr Heath in 1972, arguing that misconceptions about economic reality, and in particular about the possibilities of redistribution, were damaging the Conservatives' image among the young.

Initially cool, Mr Heath was more responsive when the professor pressed his case again in late 1973, minuting Cabinet Secretary William Armstrong that an inquiry should be set up "after the present disputes are settled".

"Present disputes", however, included the miners' strike that sent the Conservatives to the country - and defeat - in February 1974.

Elsewhere, polytechnic directors were promised a 44 per cent pay rise when the Houghton committee on non-university teachers' pay reported at the end of the year. And there was relief for the Government, whose finances were under siege from inflation, when it was told that an expansion in projected higher education numbers to 750,000 might not be necessary as "there was some evidence of falling demand".

The departments of education, employment and social security also resisted Treasury demands for measures to stop students who were living at home claiming benefits during the vacation. The Department of Education and Science feared that cutting benefits would create pressure for higher grants. The employment department did not want the extra effort needed to find vacation jobs for students and the social security department said any abuse was "a small drop in the ocean of supplementary benefit problems".

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