Higher education in general election manifestos – the 1970s

The seventies saw galloping inflation, strikes, and the polarisation of politics. But Debbie McVitty also finds in General Election manifestos of the time the arrival of students as a political force to be reckoned with

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

The seventies saw social unrest, political polarisation and economic upheaval. Early in the decade, war in the Middle East drove up the price of oil, causing worldwide rapid inflation. Economic crisis drove a wedge between workers and employers, with rolling industrial unrest and trades unions striking for higher pay to meet the rising cost of living. Ongoing battles between trades unions and government at times brought the country virtually to a standstill, creating the conditions for the Thatcherite revolution of the eighties.

Neither the Conservative Heath government of 1970-74 nor the Labour Wilson/Callaghan governments of 1974-79 could work out a sustainable way to resolve industrial disputes that satisfied unions, kept inflation under control, and kept the country running, and so the decade saw phenomena like the three-day week in 1974, in which the Heath government rationed electricity during a national miners’ strike, and the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79. During the decade the Troubles in Northern Ireland escalated and the Irish republican terrorist group the IRA shifted operations from Northern Ireland to focus on targets on the mainland. The triumph of the 1966 World Cup was not repeated; instead the UK became a byword for football hooliganism.

Faced with the apparent failure of the British state to deliver a sustainable economic solution, political views hardened on both sides of the political spectrum. At the start of the decade “One-Nation” Conservatism that sought consensus and was concerned with the maintenance of the social contract was in the ascendancy among the Conservatives; by the end the free-market economic theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were gaining traction. On the left moderate Labour politicians like Wilson and Callaghan lost influence to more radical leftist ideologies espoused by the likes of Tony Benn. The upshot was that by the end of the decade the political battle lines were much more firmly drawn than they had been at the start.

Yet at the same time the seventies saw the development of greater political consensus around the ending of discriminatory practices and gender and race equality, and new emphasis on environmental protections. It was a time of relative income equality, with a redistributive tax system that is hard to imagine today. Women entered higher education in greater numbers than ever before, and the Open University opened its (virtual) doors to 24,000 students in 1971. Despite the difficult economic conditions and even as the optimism of the start of the decade gave way to a more contentious politics at the close of the decade, there is little evidence in party manifestos of a fracturing of the general consensus that higher education should continue to expand.

For the first time students appear as a constituency in general election manifestos of the era, perhaps in recognition of their voting power since the voting age had been reduced to 18 in 1969, and perhaps also due to the relatively novel phenomenon of student protest and political activism that was a feature of the decade. We might imagine those students protesting to the soundtrack of cultural icons like David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Blondie, or later in the decade, the Sex Pistols; in fact they were probably as likely to be playing the records of the decade’s best selling artists Simon and Garfunkel, ABBA, the Carpenters, and Mike Oldfield (of Tubular Bells fame).

The 1970 General Election

The sixties had seen an economic upturn and improvements to British people’s quality of life at least in comparison to the austere fifties. But Britain was facing a larger structural economic shift in the decline of the traditional industries that had powered its economy and provided secure jobs in local communities across the country. It is clear from the manifestos of the 1970 election that benefits of growth had been reaped unevenly, with commitments to regional economic development and provision for additional training and retraining for those affected by changing technologies – both issues that remain salient in our time. The Conservative Party under Edward Heath offered an end to what the manifesto portrayed as a “cheap and trivial style of government” under Harold Wilson, promising instead “courage and intellectual honesty.”

Under the heading “Prosperity for all areas” the Conservatives made a pledge that could comes straight from the One Nation playbook:

We regard an effective regional development policy as a vital element in our economic and social strategy; economically, because both prosperous and less prosperous areas are affected by the present regional imbalance and waste of resources it involves; socially, because we are not prepared to tolerate the human waste and suffering that accompany persistent unemployment, dereliction and decline.

Under “Better Education” the Conservatives committed to further expand the number of places available in universities, polytechnics and colleges, with the rationale: “That [school leavers] should be able to develop their abilities to the full is not only right in itself but a vital national investment in the future.” In addition to expansion of post-secondary education provision the Conservatives promised to “stimulate a massive retraining programme for men and women in industry…[in] the closest co-operation with further and higher education” with an additional commitment to “wider and better provision for management training” not only for the purpose of improving efficiency and best use of resources but in pursuit of “good industrial relations.”

Labour presented an equally ambitious programme. Under the heading “the Britain we want” the Labour manifesto enthused:

Science, technology and the general growth of knowledge present great opportunities for social and economic advance. With foresight, intelligence and effort – with planning – we can harness the new technologies and the powerful economic forces of our time to human ends.

But, it went on to warn, without proper planning, Britain would see “a return to the Tory free-for-all, [where] people become the victims of economic forces they cannot control.” Under the same theme of the Britain of the future, the Labour manifesto explained a commitment to education and education reform in the context of a drive towards extending “opportunities for everyone to have a bigger say in making decisions, whether in their local community or in their place of work” – making an explicit link between education and civic participation and alluding to a devolution theme that would grow stronger throughout the decade with the rise of nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales.

The manifesto pointed to a Labour record of education investment, and its record of higher education expansion, and the founding of the Open University, promising to undertake a review for the purposes of planning further expansion:

Already since 1964 the number of young people in full time higher education, including the universities, has almost doubled. We are in transition to a new era where higher education, traditionally the preserve of a small educational elite, could become available to a wider section of the community. This expansion will require very careful planning. We shall undertake an early review of the whole field, including universities, polytechnics, higher further education and the colleges of education.

In a marked shift away from the high-mindedness of the two largest parties the Liberals under Jeremy Thorpe struck a cheekier tone. The Liberal manifesto titled “What a Life! Show ’em you care! Vote Liberal” accused the Conservatives of being the party of the rich and Labour in hock to the unions, and argued that only Liberals could represent “the individual, the unrepresented and the weak.” None of this translated into significant policies on higher education, with only one line in the manifesto that argued merely there should be more opportunities for further education outside universities.

Ultimately in 1970 the Conservatives beat Labour to a 30 seat majority – large enough to govern with but not so large that the ruling party can afford to ignore its opponents. You can’t help but wonder what Britain might have looked like under a Heath government had there not been a major economic crisis, but then arguably it is in the tackling of crises in which the quality of leadership comes to the fore. Edward Heath was not constitutionally suited to the pressures of leadership in crisis, being notoriously taciturn, personally abrasive, and politically inflexible. One of his government’s significant achievements, however, was entry to the European Economic Community – then called the Common Market, which subsequently became the EU – in 1973. By early 1974, however, Heath felt compelled to call a General Election, asking rhetorically, “who governs Britain?” The answer was not, as he had hoped, “you”.

1974 – two elections for the price of one

The General Election manifestos of the February 1974 election show little of the optimism of those of 1970, being primarily concerned with tackling inflation, improving industrial relations, and reforming taxation. Both Labour and the Liberals, fighting the election from the position of opposition, are keen to emphasise how chaotic government had become, with Labour claiming “The Government called this election in panic. They are unable to govern, and dare not tell the people the truth” and the Liberals characterising the British people as “bewildered, frightened and often angry.” By contrast, the Conservative manifesto attempted to emphasise the party’s grip, titled “Firm action for a fairer Britain.”

The only mention of higher education across the two largest parties is a downbeat one – the Conservative manifesto managing expectations on continued expansion of places:

The expansion of further and higher education will be less rapid than planned because of the reduced demand for places and the prevailing economic circumstances, but numbers will continue to increase. The review of students’ grants is proceeding and we shall continue to improve the parental income scale so that parents on a given income will pay less towards the grant.

The reference to student grants is in acknowledgment that inflation was seriously reducing the value of student grants in real terms – the matter had been repeatedly raised in parliament and in February 1974 students staged a national protest to call for an increase in grants. Margaret Thatcher, as Heath’s Secretary of State for Education and Science was responsible for a triennial review of student grants, but at various points was obliged to make unscheduled incremental increases in light of inflationary pressures. At the time of the election the Department for Education and Science was mid-review of student grants.

The Liberals, however, offer their own radical plan for post-compulsory education in their February 1974 manifesto, which promises a ten-year education development plan. As part of the plan the Liberals propose:

The abolition of the binary system of further education and the closer integration of Universities, Polytechnics and Colleges of Education. In particular we would seek to establish Community Colleges open to all age groups, with the ultimate aim of providing further education to all who desire it. To this end an adequate student grant through our credit income tax scheme would be provided.

At the conclusion of the February 1974 election Labour under Wilson formed a minority government 33 seats short of a majority after coalition talks failed between the Conservatives and the Liberals. This was hardly a sustainable political settlement given the ongoing crisis. Moreover, Wilson was not the leader he had been in the sixties. He was ill, drinking heavily, and rather worn out. The Wilson minority government achieved a settlement with the miners but inflation spiralled further and industrial unrest continued. Hoping to achieve a governing majority, Wilson called a second General Election for October 1974.

The otherwise radical Labour manifesto “Britain will win with Labour” which was heavily reliant on policies of nationalisation, economic planning, and industrial democracy is rather equivocal on specifics for higher education and students, making a generalised commitment to “full opportunities for the education of our children, our young people and students of all ages” and pledging to “continue to move towards a fairer system of student grants.” It also rehearses again its achievement in creating the Open University, “which was founded by a Labour Government and which has enriched the lives of thousands of people of all ages.”

By contrast, the Conservative manifesto makes a direct appeal to students, who are given their own subheading:

When we review student grants, we will reduce the amount that parents have to contribute and we will end the discrimination against married women students. It is unfair that, while some students can get a grant as of right from a local authority, other students only get a grant if the local authority chooses to give one. As soon as economic circumstances allow, we will review the present arrangements with the aim of ending these unfairnesses in the provision of grants.

The Conservative manifesto also promises to “encourage the formation of student housing associations” recognising pressure on student accommodation. This appeal reminds us that in the early seventies while some students were certainly highly activist, there was not an automatic affinity between students and the Left. This was, however a Conservative party, still led by Edward Heath, that continued to offer a strongly One Nation flavour of politics. Perhaps also acknowledging the political weakness of the party, the party’s October 1974 promises, if given a majority, to “use that majority above all to unite the nation” not to “govern in a narrow partisan spirit.”

The Conservatives also offered an agenda for achieving financial parity between universities and polytechnics as part of a section titled “Tasks for the Future” which set out what a Conservative government would hope to achieve if and when the “present economic difficulties” were resolved:

We will also want to ease the financial problems faced by our universities and see that teachers in polytechnics, with the same qualifications as those at universities, receive the same salaries. In addition our aim will be to finance the polytechnics and colleges of education in a similar way to the universities.

All this was no avail, however, as Wilson’s Labour party won the October 1974 election, albeit with a majority of only three. The Labour government did not only focus on economic management: it legislated against gender and race discrimination in the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, and the Race Relations Act of 1976. But by the time Wilson announced his retirement in 1976 and handed over to James Callaghan, who had been Chancellor and Foreign Secretary in Wilson’s government, Labour’s slender majority had been chipped away due to defections and by-elections. Callaghan was obliged to enter into a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberals to enable the continuation of government. Following a bailout from the International Monetary Fund and continued industrial unrest, most memorably during the “Winter of Discontent” in 1978-79, Callaghan’s government was defeated in a motion of no-confidence in government in March 1979.

The 1979 General Election

In a departure from the One Nation tone prevalent in Conservative manifestos throughout the seventies, the 1979 Conservative party manifesto opens with the observation, “No one who has lived in this country during the last five years can fail to be aware of how the balance of our society has been increasingly tilted in favour of the State at the expense of individual freedom.” Now with Margaret Thatcher as party leader, the Conservatives were beginning to adopt a more individualistic political mantra.

In its manifesto Labour offered the counter-argument:

The Conservatives will not admit that nowadays governments must step in to help create employment, to limit prices rises, to assist industry to modernize itself. They are ready to gamble the people’s future on a return to the nineteenth century free market’ – despite its pitiless social consequences. They are as dangerously out of their time as a penny farthing on the motorway.

From this perspective, rather than management of time-bound crises, the 1979 election was therefore fought on an ideological question of the core function and purpose of government – though whether this was what the electorate thought it was voting for is very much open to question. Meanwhile the Liberals, now led by David Steel, emphasised their moderating effect on the last Labour government in the plainest of terms: “The divisive policies promoted by Labour’s lunatic left-wing were effectively held in check.”

It is probably a bit of an inductive leap to suggest that under the new Conservative thinking the focus moved away from higher education expansion to standards – but there is a contrast between Labour’s and the Conservatives’ manifesto lines on higher education in 1979 that anticipates later divergence. In the Conservative manifesto we see the early seeds of a “world-leading universities” theme that continues to this day: “Much of our higher education in Britain has a world-wide reputation for its quality. We shall seek to ensure that this excellence is maintained.” Contemporary iterations of this theme while ostensibly celebrating the role that Britain’s high quality universities play in establishing the UK’s position in the world, also opens the rhetorical door to various possible threats to quality such under-qualified students, or financial challenges.

Labour, in its section on further and higher education, sticks to the tried and tested theme of expansion of higher education opportunity, once again citing the Open University, with a distinctively widening participation flavour:

Labour will substantially increase the opportunities for people from working-class backgrounds – particularly adults – to enter further and higher education. We want to see more workers given time off work for study. To this end, the places at the Open University have increased from 42,000 in 1974 to 80,000 in 1978. We propose to extend the present mandatory grant system.

The Liberals in 1979 seek a more integrated post-school education system “with closer links between universities, polytechnics and further education.”

From being barely visible in the fifties to the expansionist sixties, universities and higher education begin to feature more systematically as a facet of state policy in the seventies, with frequent mentions particularly in the context of the wider secondary and post-compulsory education system. From its inception the Open University was adopted as a Labour flagship project, and the OU receives repeated celebratory mentions in Labour manifestos of the period. Higher education expansion – even if not as fast-paced as might have been seen under different economic circumstances – took place against a backdrop of wider social reform, with the legal status of women in particular changing.

Given the persistence of economic challenge it is not surprising to see the emergence of student finance as a key theme for manifestos throughout the decade, and thus the emergence of students as a political constituency. We have grown used to speculating about what the political parties might look to offer to student voters – but it’s curious to think that had the economics of the seventies been more favourable it is possible that students would have been less a feature of the politics of the decade.

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