The Iron Lady’s HE Legacy

Matthew Syed, writing recently in The Times, makes some typically perceptive points about Mrs Thatcher’s sporting legacy:  ‘(Football) clubs (he writes) are no longer hubs of the community but profit-maximising institutions. Spectators have become consumers rather than fans.  For many, this has been a boon. Spiralling revenues have built new stadiums, transformed television coverage and allowed players to earn money unfettered by dubious restrictions. For others, it has had regrettable effects. The Thatcherite obsession with profits, it is said, has priced many fans out of the market and altered the game’s meaning. Such people hanker for a return to the past, or at least a different future. On the other side of the equation, the same analysis applies. Those who watch football are not consumers in the sense that would have been recognised by Thatcher. Liverpool fans would not switch allegiance to Manchester United if the football was more attractive at Old Trafford or the meat pies tastier. Fans are not the footloose consumers of economic theory — and the moment they begin to envision themselves as such, they would cease to be fans. Thatcherism left its mark on football, just as it did on society. Both have moved in the direction of free exchange, shorn of the restrictions of the postwar consensus. But look closely and you will see allegiances to larger ideals — to community, club, or nation — that shape behaviour every bit as much as incentives or profits. Football and society ignore these impulses at their peril.’

I quote at length partly because Syed is so perceptive, but also partly because if you substitute ‘students’ for ‘fans/spectators’, ‘labs’ for ‘stadiums’, ‘researchers’ (or perhaps Vice Chancellors?) for ‘players’ and ‘universities’ for ‘clubs’, we can switch ‘HE’ for ‘football’ and the whole article makes perfect sense. Indeed, it’s a great analysis of Higher Education under Mrs Thatcher’s successors – not just David Willetts, but Peter Mandelson.  And just as Syed claims that football has changed, but cannot be fundamentally transformed, so I would argue that Higher Education, a different world today, still retains its non-market soul.

David Willetts would of course be impossible without Margaret Thatcher, and the massive growth in student numbers and freeing up of academia (with which Thatcher had, let’s not forget, a mixed relationship) have transformed universities, largely for the better ... but ‘tribal loyalty’ still operates too. The occasional student might jump ship from Birmingham to Brunel or Manchester to Glasgow, but by and large students belong to their institutions, and by and large these institutions still genuinely have excellence, not money, at heart. Students still don’t largely think they are consumers (pace the rhetoric of the Student Loans Company), and most in my experience actually still think in terms of the intrinsic (social) value of study (whatever the new president of the NUS might claim) as well as their self interest in becoming more employable.

But has the market revolution opened up Higher Education? In the past doors were closed to many: no longer. That progress may be more justly attributed to the Schwartz Report, OFFA and the like, than to the free market.  Yet discrimination still makes a good story, and so the Easter publication of a new report from Durham University was greedily gobbled up by the papers: Top Universities are accused of discrimination against minorities and state pupils, ran the headline in several leading nationals, following a report by Dr Vikki Boliver at Durham. ‘Pupils need to score the equivalent of one A-level grade higher than children in the independent sector to compensate for “unfair” entry policies at elite Russell Group institutions, researchers warned’, was a comment made in the Telegraph. ‘The study suggested that state-educated sixth-formers were around 20 per cent less likely to be admitted than similarly-qualified peers from fee-paying schools.’

Now there are a number of things one might say. As ever, with research, we need to look carefully at the detail. Dr Boliver has looked at figures from 2002-6 (before universities were urged to widen participation), and – to be fair – updated them with 2010-12 figures. What the latter actually show is an increase in the proportion of state-educated pupils, with the appropriate qualifications, gaining offers to top institutions. A matter for congratulation, surely. They also, rather interestingly, show there has been no increase in the likelihood of a state-educated pupil applying in the first place (ie nobody is aiming substantially higher), and that there has been no movement on ‘racial’ ‘discrimination’.  So much for market forces opening up HE.

But the most obvious comment is surely this:  commentators can’t have it both ways! Do they think top universities are discriminating in favour of independent schools or against? The reality is that no-one seems to be able to prove anything, and that most probably they are doing neither on any systematic scale. Not now, not ever.  Perhaps researchers, as my colleague Bobby Georghiou correctly remarked, might have more of a chance if they laid off the feeble state/independent divide as the basis for their research.

As we all know, in the past, few students applied to top universities from state schools. Now more do, but there’s still a great deal of work to do: information and guidance in many schools is woefully poor, and too many schools allow bright students to make poor subject choices, or do not actively encourage them to aim for the skies in their applications. Many independent schools see it as part of their social duty to help – hence many initiatives such as our ‘Aspiring Medics’ conference at King’s aimed not at sixth formers but at year 9 students, to help them make good choices and get good experience.  

In the past ‘top’ schools were less open. Now they are more so (Patrick Derham has written brilliantly about this on a number of occasions). Again, there’s more to do, though let’s not forget that in the past there were direct grant schools and Assisted Places: now we in the independent sector are expected to be, and fund, both the DG and APs! Rather than the market having improved participation, independent schools seem to be doing so, helping raise aspiration and taking on the financial and social mission once the province of government.

But from HE point of view it’s clear: our students are good. When Dr Boliver says ‘something is happening that’s skewing admissions’, I say that in HMC’s experience, admissions are fair and equable. They are only ‘skewed’ by quality of applicant.

When Les Ebdon was asked by Heads of large day schools in an informal meeting what universities should make of independent school candidates who have large bursaries, he said ‘they are gold dust’. The school will have done a great job, and their school background is irrelevant.

When the Vice Chancellor of Sheffield entered the debate on discrimination, he wrote to HMC Heads: ‘ we do not distinguish between state and privately educated pupils’.  Admirably clear, in my experience correct, and unexceptionable.

So to paraphrase one of Mrs Thatchers famous speeches: some commentators would like universities to discriminate positively in favour of state school pupils; others think it is the case that they prioritise these pupils unfairly; many think that the sector in which you are educated defines you as an applicant. No, no, no.

By Chris Ramsey, Co-Chair of HMC/GSA Universities Sub-Committee and Head of The King's School, Chester