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Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, which was awarded its Royal charter in 1983 with the then-prime minister’s support, praised Baroness Thatcher’s policies in the 1980s for transforming UK higher education.
Meanwhile, the universities and science minister David Willetts also paid tribute to her “extraordinary achievements” in setting the scene “for the world-class higher education sector we have today”.
Professor Kealey, a former adviser to Baroness Thatcher, who has died at the age of 87 following a stroke, said her reforms led to more transparency and accountability within the sector, while her push to liberalise rules on fees also had an immense impact.
“Before Mrs Thatcher, universities were very similar to public utilities – run for the benefit of staff with government money. Now they are stellar,” said Professor Kealey.
“She was determined to introduce a much higher level of accountability for public funding and greater accountability for students as customers,” he said.
The introduction of full tuition fees for international students in 1981 was a good example of Baroness Thatcher’s benign legacy to higher education, he said.
“It was condemned by almost everyone as a catastrophe for higher education when it was introduced,” he said.
“We were told no foreign students would ever come to Britain. What happened was that, after an initial one-year dip in student numbers, international student numbers continued to grow, providing an invaluable, independent source of income to universities.”
The introduction of the research assessment exercise in 1986 was another key achievement, he added.
“The process aligned government support with research outcomes and it transformed the system,” he said.
“The RAE [was] of huge benefit to British institutions, which are second only to those in America.”
He listed Baroness Thatcher, who was chancellor of Buckingham from 1992 to 1998, as one of the four great politicians of the 20th century, alongside Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Clement Atlee.
Mr Willetts, who worked in the former prime minister’s policy unit before becoming an MP, said the “sad news” was “the right moment to reflect on Margaret Thatcher’s extraordinary achievements”.
“I was honoured to know her and to work for her. As education secretary [from 1970 to 1974], she saved the Open University and presided over a big expansion in student numbers.
“As prime minister, she extended opportunity by introducing the first student loans and improved the research base by introducing the research assessment exercise. Those changes set the scene for the world-class higher education sector we have today.
“As a scientist she also understood the value of research, including blue skies research. That is why, as prime minister, she overruled official scepticism and made Britain a full contributor to the Large Hadron Collider.”
Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, who was chairman of the University Grants Committee, later the Universities Funding Council, between 1983 to 1991, also saluted Baroness Thatcher’s impact on higher education.
“The instinct of a woman is to spring-clean and this country needed spring-cleaning, not least the university sector,” said Professor Swinnerton-Dyer, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge.
“She was a great prime minister and she did much to change the atmosphere of higher education,” he said.
“Universities were spending money wastefully, so…the [RAE] was essentially invented by me and was instituted so money could be divided up in a fair way.”
However, Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, said her policies were “the beginning of a long decline” for universities.
“The cuts in 1981 were a disaster for British higher education – some of worst things that have ever happened to higher education,” said Professor Brown, a former head of the Higher Education Quality Council, the predecessor to the Quality Assurance Agency.
“She didn’t actually have much interest in higher education, though she was upset at [her alma mater] Oxford’s failure to give her an honorary degree.
“She was happy for Keith Joseph – her secretary of state for education and her guru – to run higher education. She trusted him more than anyone.”
Professor Brown, who worked with Baroness Thatcher while a civil servant in the Cabinet Office from 1980 to 1982, said some policies around research selectivity had a positive impact, but overall “the general drift of her policies were not helpful.”