Why universities owe Tony Blair a debt of thanks

May 18, 2007

Many of our readers will have decided views on Tony Blair, and those who do not could be forgiven for not wishing to have another look at his legacy after the surfeit of retrospectives over the past week. Yet, although he never commissioned a report on the scale of Robbins or Dearing, or oversaw an initiative as imaginative as the Open University, it is fair to say that higher education played a far more prominent role in his premiership than in those of most British premiers.

In what state will Mr Blair leave British higher education? In one sense, the verdict of many in the sector was emphatically delivered in the last general election when, for the first time in several generations, the Liberal Party and not Labour commanded the biggest slice of the academic vote. Labour support plummeted from 65 per cent in 2001 to 41 per cent.

The bald figures suggest that during Mr Blair's ten years in power, the pattern depressingly set in 1992 continued initially after 1997 - rapid expansion unaccompanied by extra resources. Funding per student remained relatively static in real terms, and only rose in England by 15 per cent following the introduction of fees. UK public spending on higher education did increase, rising by 59 per cent in real terms during the decade. But at 0.8 per cent of gross domestic product, this is well below Germany and France's 1 per cent and America's 1.2 per cent. Science, however, has been a big winner; its budget has risen at an average rate of 5.8 per cent since the last spending review to reach £5 billion next year.

Mr Blair's administration did not lack initiatives. It would probably prefer to forget the stillborn e-university and the flawed individual learning accounts, and recall instead its efforts to encourage knowledge transfer or stimulate alumni donations. The patchy execution and ill-conceived nature of many programmes only added to the impression - hinted at by the partial adoption of the Dearing report and confirmed by the 2001 manifesto commitment ruling out top-up fees - that Mr Blair's higher education policy was inchoate at best and incoherent at worst. The confusion, derision and inflated claims that often accompanied these initiatives, however, should not detract from the underlying principle on which many were based: a desire to make universities accessible to students from less privileged backgrounds. If progress on widening participation has been slow - the proportion of students from non-traditional backgrounds remaining the same even though absolute numbers have increased - he deserves credit for making it a central tenet of higher education policy.

Would previous governments have done as much?

Mr Blair also understood the essential part that UK universities play in the country's economy, and the international nature of higher education. In one sense - and despite the global challenges Britain's universities now face - the numbers of overseas staff and students populating our campuses stand testament to the regard in which our higher education institutions are held, for which Mr Blair can take some real (the Prime Minister's Initiative) and some refracted credit. After all, it happened on his watch.

But ultimately universities owe Mr Blair a debt of thanks for one measure above all else - the introduction of variable tuition fees.

Whatever the confusion and the cant surrounding higher education policy in the first half of his tenure in Number 10, he grasped the essential truth that the long-term viability and independence of British universities depended on asking students to contribute more to their education, in the teeth of opposition from the majority of academics and students and many in his own party. Indeed, he was willing to put his career on the line to achieve it. How many British prime ministers would have dared so much for those they habitually considered so little?

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