Interview with Cherie Blair

The leading lawyer and wife of the former British prime minister on why she applied to the LSE over Oxbridge, tuition fees and the importance of international students

January 25, 2018
Cherie Blair
Source: Marcus Jamieson-Pond

Cherie Blair is one of the UK’s leading human rights lawyers and is chancellor of the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. She is married to Tony Blair, prime minister of the UK between 1997 and 2007, and she was recently a speaker at the first Yidan Prize Summit, in Hong Kong, where the world’s largest education award (worth £5.8 million) was presented.

Where and when were you born?
Bury in Lancashire in 1954, but when I was six weeks old we went to live with my grandmother near Liverpool.

How did this shape you?
The main thing was that my grandmother and my mum were avid readers. Reading was a very important part of my childhood – I could read by the time I was four, and by 10 I had read every book in the local library. They made an exception and allowed me to have a ticket to the adult library. We couldn’t really afford to buy many books, so my grandma subscribed to a few public libraries. Without those opportunities, I wouldn’t have had a chance to learn.

You grew up in a working-class area of Merseyside, where very few pupils progressed to university. How aware were you about educational inequalities as a child?
I went to a local Catholic primary school where there were 80 kids in my year. I was moved straight from Year 4 to Year 6, so I did the 11-plus [exam] aged 10, but only three girls passed – I came top. However, one didn’t go because her parents couldn’t afford the uniform, so it was only me and one other girl who went to the grammar school. Even from a very young age, I was very conscious that, after that, my path diverged from the girls who went to the secondary modern school.

How did you go from a convent school in Liverpool to the London School of Economics?
My father [the actor Tony Booth] left my mother, my sister and me when I was eight, but he kept in contact with his family and, therefore, us. He was a well-known Labour Party activist, hellraiser and everything else, but from an early age he would send me books. He sent me Pride and Prejudice when I got into grammar school, then later The Female Eunuch and even the Domesday Book – he was very keen that I was politically aware; so the LSE was the natural place to go.

Did you consider applying to Oxbridge?
There was a thought that I could go. But if you did, you had to stay an extra year, and I’d had enough of the nuns by then so wanted to move on.

Tuition fees were about £3,300 a year when your husband stepped down as prime minister; they are now £9,250. Do you think you might have been put off by such a sum when you applied to university?
No. I suspect, given my background, that I would have qualified for the maintenance [support] and that would have made a difference. My family were very keen on education [and] somehow or other would have made university happen for me. I don’t think the answer is to go back to the full grant system. In the 1970s, only about 5 per cent of young people went to university, and how many were working-class students? – not many.

Former Labour minister Lord Adonis wants tuition fees to return to about £3,000 a year. Do you think this is a more sensible level given worries about student debt?
It comes back to the question of “how do we afford to pay for tertiary education?”. Why should someone like my mother…who had to take a job in a fish and chip shop to support us after my father left us…pay for the university education of the children of someone like me – as I am now – because that is the issue.

You are an emeritus governor at the LSE – one of the UK’s most international universities. Do you worry that the benefits of having foreign students has been ignored?
When Tony was prime minister, he was very much of the view that one of the ways that Britain could gain influence and make friends with future leaders of the world was by encouraging people to come and study here. This is now a big question of our immigration policy, how we treat these visiting students – whether they should contribute to immigration numbers rather than being a separate category. I’m not sure [the benefits of international students] have been taken for granted, but this kind of soft power definitely exists and is very important for our country.

What has most surprised you during your trips to the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh?
I knew Bangladesh as I’d done some legal cases around the country, but what struck me was the buzz from young girls who are so open to wanting to learn. It is very much a melting pot, with young girls from 15 different countries, and that mix of ethnicities and cultures is amazing to see. The biggest group is from Bangladesh, then Afghanistan and then Sri Lanka – from both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities [which had been caught up in an ethnic civil war that lasted for 26 years and ended only in 2009]. The university has worked with them to help them share their feelings about the conflict, and students performed a small play for me about this. Some then went home and ran a series of nursery playgroups about cross-community reconciliation, which was an incredible thing to do.

What role does education play in the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, which operates in more than 100 countries?
I’m aware that the economic independence that I achieved was so much more difficult for my mother and grandmother [because] they were not educated. The foundation is very much about women’s economic empowerment by helping them to set up their own businesses. [The women we help did not have] the educational opportunities when they were young, but by giving them financial training we can help them achieve the potential they couldn’t achieve due to their disrupted education. Education shouldn’t be a one-off opportunity between [the ages of] three and 19 – it is something you should be able to do at any time.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Helen Langton has been appointed vice-chancellor of the Univer-sity of Suffolk, following Richard Lister’s decision to retire. She will join Suffolk from the University of South Wales, where she is deputy vice-chancellor for academic, research and business engagement. Professor Langton said: “The university is rightly proud of its progress with its clear focus on learning, teaching and employability, and it plays a significant part in the region with huge support from business, industry and local government. I look forward to building on this as the university develops.”

Sir John Kingman, the interim chair of UK Research and Innovation, will take up the role of permanent chair in April. Sir John, a former second permanent secretary at the Treasury, will work alongside Sir Mark Walport, the organisation’s chief executive. “This a moment of exceptional opportunity – and responsibility – to make best possible use of the very large increases in science and innovation funding committed in the industrial strategy,” Sir John said. UKRI will be established as a single, strategic body that will bring together the seven research councils, Innovate UK and the research funding currently distributed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Dame Fiona Kendrick and Sir Eric Thomas have joined the board of trustees of the New Model in Technology and Engineering, a new university that will be based in Hereford, as chair and deputy chair, respectively. Dame Fiona is chair of Nestlé UK and Ireland. Sir Eric served as vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol from 2001 to 2015.

Elfred Anthony Pinkard, executive vice-president and provost of Wilberforce University in Ohio, will become president of the institution on 1 March. He will succeed Herman J. Felton Jr, who will become president of Wiley College in Texas.

Antonio Giangreco has been named associate dean for international relations at Lille’s IÉSEG School of Management.

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