Thatcher’s legacy: golden age for higher education or ‘unmitigated disaster’?

Former prime minister’s higher education policies still elicit respect and rancour. Jack Grove reports

April 11, 2013

Margaret Thatcher’s “extraordinary” legacy to British universities has been hailed by a minister and a vice-chancellor, although others have claimed her swingeing cuts were a “disaster” for higher education.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who worked at 10 Downing Street in the 1980s, led tributes to the former prime minister, who has died at the age of 87 following a stroke.

Mr Willetts said he 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,” he said.

“As prime minister, she extended opportunity by introducing the first student loans and improved the research base by introducing the research assessment exercise,” he added.

“Those changes set the scene for the world-class higher education sector we have today.”

Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, which was awarded its royal charter in 1983 with Baroness Thatcher’s support, said her impact on higher education had been “revolutionary” and transformed many British universities into “stellar” world-class institutions.

“Before Mrs Thatcher, universities were very similar to public utilities - run for the benefit of staff on government money,” he said.

The introduction of full tuition fees for international students in 1981 provided “an invaluable, independent source of income to universities”, while the RAE in 1986 “transformed the [university] system”, he added.

However, Sir Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education, University of London - and editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement while Lady Thatcher was prime minister - said “her main legacy was the 1981 cuts in university funding, which set the pattern of squeezing the unit-of-resource that continued until after the election of the Blair government in 1997”.

John Akker, deputy general secretary of the Association of University Teachers in the 1980s, said Lady Thatcher’s “unprecedented” cuts to higher education meant it “was not a golden age for universities”.

“At the time, people regarded the period as an unmitigated disaster for universities,” he said.

“People should realise how close we came to several universities actually closing. Without the good sense of staff and university leaders, there would have been mass redundancies across the sector.

“Thatcher’s legacy was a disillusioned workforce as staff morale collapsed, while many young people were put off a career in academia.”

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