Margaret Thatcher and The Open University

As Education Secretary in the early 1970s Margaret Thatcher made two decisions which illustrate her long-term approach to higher education. The first one was to ignore the patrician voices in her own party which derided the newly-opened Open University. She opted to retain Labour’s project. However, there was a twist. She wanted the OU to compete by accepting 18 year-old students, not simply ‘mature’ ones. There was a row, but, unlike almost all UK universities, the OU was not under the umbrella of the University Grants Committee. It was a model for how central government influence could be brought to bear.

She then became associated with another institution which accepted students who had not passed any A levels. In 1976 she unveiled the foundation stone of the independent University of Buckingham. This engagement indicates her interest in challenging the conventional higher education sector funding model. On learning of her death, Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor at Buckingham and a former adviser to Thatcher, praised Thatcher’s HE policies. he argued that they introduced greater accountability for students and for funders.

Her support for innovative structures occurred against a backdrop of the removal of much higher education funding. In 1976 confidence in sterling was so low that the government sought help from the International Monetary Fund. In return for the largest loan ever made by that institution public expenditure was cut. This policy was maintained after Thatcher became PM in 1979. In 1981 the UK’s universities were given a month to make an eighteen per cent cut in their budgets and 3,000 academic posts were eliminated. Former civil servant in the Cabinet Office from 1980 to 1982, and also the ex-head of the Higher Education Quality Council (the predecessor to the Quality Assurance Agency) Roger Brown is now the Professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University. He said her policies were ‘the beginning of a long decline’ for universities. He argued that ‘The cuts in 1981 were a disaster for British higher education – some of worst things that have ever happened to higher education’.

In 1984 student grants were frozen. Had the OU, where most students did not receive such payments, acted as the model for this change? Anger about funding lay behind the refusal, in 1985, of Oxford University to award her an honorary degree even though all the other post-war PMs who had studied there had been accorded this honour.

Academic schadenfreude following this snub may have been dissipated when a Departmental Report of that year noted the ‘disincentives to change within higher education, including over-dependence on public funding’ and also noted failures in communication with employers. In 1986 selective funding of research, based on a state-supervised peer review process, strengthened the stratification of universities and competition between them. 1988 saw the abolition of tenure and academic freedom being framed in a more constrained manner. In addition the University Grants Committee, the buffer between the government and universities, was replaced with a number of bodies which were less like barriers and more like the arms of government. The greater central control was linked to the devolution of some responsibilities to universities and support for vocationally relevant higher education, closer links to employers and a wider range of modes of provision. Simon Jenkins noted that in her memoirs Thatcher refers to the  centralisation as ‘unintended‘.

Much has been written about that 1985 rebuke. However, the moves which followed, to increase commercial and corporate opportunities, to create market-like conditions within the state-funded sector and to encourage conformity towards audited norms had longer and wider roots. If you seek a memorial for Thatcherism, look not to Oxford, which was still arguing over naming a building after her in 2012. Rather look at how the landscape has been altered in the wake of another idea pioneered at the OU, greater international interconnectedness and how the universities themselves have had their scholastic leadership and traditions of autonomy replaced by commercial structures and central regulation.

Leave a Reply