Thatcher’s enduring legacy to British HE

What did Margaret Thatcher ever do to British universities? Push a free market doctrine and tear up red tape, you might suspect. That certainly seems to be what Charles Moore, writing for The Telegraph, thinks.  He used Oxford University’s refusal to grant Margaret Thatcher an honorary doctorate as his hook for an article ahead of a Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) conference on Margaret Thatcher and Liberty.

The last few days has seen much analysis of Thatcher’s legacy for universities, research and science – which gives us an appropriate moment to assess the history.

Oxford University snubbed Thatcher by refusing her an honorary doctorate because, writes Charles Moore, it was objecting to something new and bold, arguing that she faced resistance to her changes across all areas of public life because of the radicalism of her ideas about liberty.

However, does this narrative really hold true for higher education?

It is ironic for Moore to have cited universities when looking back so adoringly at the Thatcher era for a CPS conference as it was actually that think tank, despite being co-founded by Thatcher, which provided a pulpit for two fierce critiques of her Government’s reforms to higher education.

And the charge was not a criticism of a lack of radicalism. Instead, her Government came under fire for implementing a massive expansion of state power over British universities.

In 1987, the historian Elie Kedourie wrote a critique of the reforms to research funding in a pamphlet titled Diamonds into Glass: the Government and the Universities. This took aim at the 1986 research assessment exercise (RAE), which he described as haphazard and hasty exercises of assessing quality.

His critique of the RAE would not be out of place in a Stefan Collini article or a response from CDBU to the idea of REF considering impact:

Those who remember the university as it used to be, only three or four decades ago, will know that here lies the secret of its extraordinary power to stretch the intellect of those within its portals, and to inspire loyalty and affection as the alma mater who bounteously bestows, on all those who work to possess them, the prodigious riches contained in the Aladdin’s Cave of the mind. The great value of Aladdin’s Cave is that its riches are wholly unexpected and uncovenanted. The moment a licensed valuer is sent to make a survey according to ruling market prices, the charm is broken, gold turns to lead, diamond to glass.

Kedourie complained that in the RAE process the University Grants Committee had:

Took upon itself, or perhaps had imposed upon it, the task of evaluating the contribution to research of British universities. Using its own private criteria and on the basis of what can have been no more than quick impressions and sketchy information, the Committee proceeded solemnly to bestow on every university department in the land a gold, or a silver or a bronze star.

Of Government reports published on higher education in 1987, Kedourie complained:

The thrust of these documents in unmistakable. They all start from the assumption that universities have to have their goals prescribed by government, and that the realization of these goals is to be closely monitored through a new body employing a new method of control, which the Government is to set up.

Deepak Lal, later a President of the Mont Pelerin Society, wrote a pamphlet titled Nationalised Universities: paradox of the privatisation age, in which he slammed the 1988 Education Reform Act for its expansion of government control over universities, arguing that Kenneth Baker and Robert Jackson had in effect nationalised Britain’s universities, contravening the principles professed by the Thatcher governments. According a later compilation of his writings, Jackson apparently even threatened to sue Lal.

Lal pointed to the history of Soviet planning to argue that the use of non-market indicators of performance would lead to perverse incentives and undermine original aims of policymakers.

Lal might well have penned the first accusation of Stalinist parallels in British higher education policy, a line of analysis which has been regularly repeated since. In 2003, a Soviet specialist, Ron Amann, argued that the bureaucratic pressures upon and within British universities were instantaneously recognisable to an old Soviet hand. The latest was only last month, when Craig Brandist made the same charge in Times Higher Education.

Despite being ill-fitting with the party’s rhetoric, those changes did not meet much resistance within Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party. Instead, it was when Keith Joseph proposed means testing tuition fees that he suddenly found 180 Conservative MPs – half the Parliamentary party – signing an early day motion again them on account of how unpopular it would be with home country voters.

Margaret Thatcher opposed the change and fees were kicked into the long grass. Expanding the power of the state over universities, by contrast, never faced such fierce resistance.

Despite being wrong on many points in relation to universities, Moore was correct to say in his article that most of Thatcher’s changes have not been reversed. In higher education, we still have a system of central regulation, an expanded and more bureaucratic version of the original RAE and a quasi-market system in which the state pushes and guides the behaviour of universities.

Even Terence Kealey, the University of Buckingham’s Vice Chancellor and long-standing critic of the state funding of research (which he pointed out once again in The Telegraph last week) has declared getting his university into the REF to be one of the University’s longer term strategic goals, even appointing a dean specifically dedicated to the task, despite his theoretical objections to such funding.

Ironically then, it was Margaret Thatcher, a leader with a reputation for being a cold war warrior and a champion of free market capitalism, who ended up leading a Government that massively expanded university regulation and created a system with enduring parallels to a Soviet planned economy. A system that even its biggest ideological detractors in the sector want to be a part of.

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