Thatcher - not just a milk snatcher

January 5, 2001

"Margaret Thatcher - saviour of the Open University." The label is less familiar than "milk snatcher" or "iron lady", but cabinet papers for 1970, released earlier this week under the 30-year rule, show that it would have been fully justified.

Nineteen seventy was the year in which Mrs Thatcher became famous. She was the only woman in Edward Heath's Conservative cabinet, elected at the June 18 general election. Part of her inheritance as secretary of state for education and science was the Open University, created by Labour and due to send out its first acceptance letters on August 1, just six weeks after the new government was elected. The Conservatives came to office committed to cutting £1.7 billion in public spending and attention naturally fell on the OU, a Labour project.

The cabinet meeting of July 23 asked Mrs Thatcher and Maurice MacMillan, chief secretary to the Treasury, to look into ways of cutting the OU's costs - perhaps by reducing the initial intake from 25,000 to 15,000. They found that any saving would be negligible and were unable to agree on alternatives.

Ministers attending cabinet on July 30 were offered competing memoranda. Mr MacMillan argued for closure: "I cannot agree that we should ignore a project which we did not initiate, have never commended, and have never accepted as a commitment; which is completely experimental and uncertain in its effect."

Mrs Thatcher argued for leaving the OU unscathed: "We simply could not defend the abrupt cessation of the university's existence, without warning, by Saturday... we should have trouble out of all proportion to the money saved... quite apart from the political considerations, the unit cost per graduate produced in this new institution could well be substantially less than in the orthodox university system."

It was Mrs Thatcher who carried the day, conditional on her talking to the university about its future numbers, the potential for attracting students under the age of 21 and for increasing fees.

Harold Wilson, the prime minister defeated on June 18, was always happy to be remembered as the creator of the OU. Newly released correspondence shows he was less happy with the University Grants Committee in October 1969, inquiring in a handwritten marginal note: "Who the hell do they think they are?". Mr Wilson wanted his secretary of state for Wales, George Thomas, to speak to the UGC about plans for the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (Uwist), but the UGC felt this "would be improper". His anger was possibly fuelled not only by the UGC acting "like a sovereign state", but by the fact that the issue had been raised by his brother-in-law Cliff Baldwin, head of electrical engineering at Uwist.

An ex-academic, Mr Wilson was always interested in university issues, summoning a delegation from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals to a meeting on April 15. The vice-chancellors raised the erosion of their funding and the possible consequences of entering the European Economic Community in 1973.

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