Thatcher’s academic paradox

Margaret Thatcher was committed to freedom, but under her reign state power over universities increased. Vernon Bogdanor assesses her legacy to education

April 25, 2013

Margaret Thatcher is the only prime minister ever to have been education secretary. Yet her relationship with the educational establishment was never very happy. Despite the role that the University of Oxford played in her life, she was perhaps the first post-war prime minister not to be properly respectful of higher education. But higher education was not particularly respectful of her either, as symbolised by the spiteful decision of her alma mater in 1985 to refuse her an honorary degree, a decision that has cost Oxford dear in terms of money and prestige.

Thatcher was the first prime minister to appreciate that the great corporate blocs of the immediate post-war years were dissolving under the impact of consumerism, home ownership and social mobility. That was the key to her electoral success. Society was becoming unblocked, more fluid and individualistic. The politics of the producer was coming to be replaced by the politics of the consumer, the philosophy of the state by the philosophy of economic liberalism.

In education, the consumers were presumably parents and students; and as education secretary in the Heath government from 1970 to 1974, Thatcher championed parental choice and, in particular, the right of local communities to preserve their grammar schools. Yet she closed more grammar schools and approved more applications for comprehensives than any other education secretary. It was indeed under her reign, rather than that of Anthony Crosland or Shirley Williams, that what New Labour’s director of communications Alastair Campbell was to call “the bog-standard comprehensive” became the norm in secondary education.

In her autobiography, The Path to Power, there is a rare moment of self- criticism. But the criticism is not that she failed to protect the grammar schools. It is that, in fighting for them, “we were defending a principle - namely that the state should select children by the simple criterion of ability and direct them to one of only two sorts of school - that is far more consonant with socialism and collectivism than with the spontaneous social order associated with liberalism and conservatism. State selection by ability is, after all, a form of manpower planning.”

The philosophy of economic liberalism required not the central determination of the structure of secondary education, but rather a reduction in the role of the state, perhaps through a voucher system putting power in the hands of parents. But during her 11 and a half years in power, Thatcher made no attempt to introduce such a system.

The government believed institutions would be better governed by managers, especially managers from the world of business, a doctrine that has lowered the morale not only of the universities but also the Civil Service and the NHS

There was a similar disconnect between rhetoric and reality in her approach to higher education. Thatcherism might have been expected to encourage a mixed economy in which privatised universities jostled for supremacy with institutions in the public sector, and finance was determined by market-based student fees. But she made no moves in this direction. Indeed, when her John the Baptist, Keith Joseph, suggested top- up tuition fees, he was howled down by the denizens of Conservative constituency associations, furious that the rhetoric of the market was threatening their subsidies. The Iron Lady delicately backed down and disowned her protégé.

Thatcherism in higher education was paradoxical. Committed in theory to freedom, in practice it legitimised a massive centralisation of power. The Education Reform Act 1988 destroyed the independent elements in the governance of higher education. The polytechnic sector was removed from local government, while the constitutional autonomy of the universities was emasculated by the abolition of the University Grants Committee, a buffer between the government and the universities, composed primarily of senior and respected academics. The committee was replaced by funding councils, on which academics were a minority, with places reserved for those with experience or capacity in “industrial, commercial or financial matters or the practice of any profession”.

Maurice Kogan, professor of government at Brunel University and a former official in the Department of Education, believed that Thatcher’s government treated the universities “like religious houses in the early sixteenth century, full of libidinous abbots and corrupt nuns”. They would be better governed by managers, especially managers from the world of business, a doctrine that has lowered the morale not only of the universities but also of the Civil Service and the NHS, as well as opening the doors to the enemies of learning.

In higher education, Thatcher, far from destroying Clement Attlee’s legacy, completed it. The universities were the great exception to that central trend of post-war politics, the decline of the state. Indeed, when, in the late 1980s, Thatcher’s education secretary Kenneth Baker visited the dying Soviet Union, he was congratulated on the degree of central control that he had achieved. Yet, as Oxford’s chancellor, Roy Jenkins, insisted, during the debate on the Education Reform Act: “It is difficult to think of any field of human endeavour in which central regulation is a greater enemy of excellence than that of the organisation of the teaching and research of universities.”

Centralisation was designed to ensure that higher education promoted entrepreneurial values. In 1985, Joseph, as education secretary, published a Green Paper titled The Development of Higher Education into the 1990s in which he declared that universities should be “concerned with attitudes to the world outside higher education, and in particular to industry and commerce” and should, therefore, “go out to develop their links with industry and commerce”. George Walden, Joseph’s parliamentary private secretary, remembers a Conservative backbencher putting the point more pithily: “Why don’t we just make them give up this Shakespeare nonsense and do something useful?”

Just three MPs spoke out against the Green Paper - an incongruous trio - Enoch Powell, the former professor of Greek, declared that it was “barbarism to attempt to evaluate the contents of higher education in terms of economic performance or to set a value upon the consequences of higher education in terms of a monetary cost-benefit analysis”; Gordon Wilson, the Scottish National Party leader, called Joseph a philistine; while Eric Heffer, the left-wing Labour MP for Liverpool, Walton, declared that “man does not live by bread alone”.

The House of Commons was thus treated to the piquant spectacle of a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford being roundly and appropriately rebuked for his lack of understanding of education by a man who had left school at 14.

Thatcher was not impervious to this criticism. In The Downing Street Years, she declares that, in higher education, “Many distinguished academics thought that Thatcherism…meant a philistine subordination of scholarship to the immediate requirements of vocational training. That was no part of my kind of Thatcherism.” Nevertheless she accepted that her critics “were genuinely concerned about the future autonomy and academic interests of universities” and that they “had a stronger case than I would have liked”.

Shortly before leaving office, she asked Brian Griffiths, the head of her policy unit, now Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, to prepare a scheme “to give the leading universities much more independence. The idea was to allow them to opt out of Treasury financial rules and raise and keep capital, owning their assets as a trust. It would have represented a radical decentralisation of the whole system.” But, as with vouchers, there was just not enough time.

The key to understanding Thatcherism is to distinguish the rhetoric from the reality. When that is done, it will be seen that, in the field of higher education, Thatcherism was a matter of aspiration rather than achievement.

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