By a man how left school at 14

Vernon Bogdanor in the THE in an article on Thatcher and the decline of HE in the UK:

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.

What I hadn’t really appreciated —and it is obvious to most, I know — was how the same principles of de-professionalization have been applied to both healthcare and higher education.

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.

Post by Jonathan Rees

Clinical academic and skin watcher at the University of Edinburgh

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