When Margaret Thatcher came to power many thought she would attempt to undo the damage of the comprehensive experiment and progressive methods, damage which was already visible. In her 11 years in power she not only failed to repair the damage, but she made things worse through her attempts to translate her free market ideology into education.
The Thatcher Governments neither reinstituted the grammar schools (or an equivalent) nor drove out the anti-examination, anti-competitive ethos of the teaching profession. Instead, Margaret Thatcher contented herself with introducing Thatcherite ideas such as a national curriculum and league tables and by encouraging parents and pupils (and later university students) to think of themselves as consumers while leaving things much as they were in terms of teaching methods, mentality and administrative structure.
This bizarre marriage of the prevailing progressive ideology with Thatcherite ideals would have been unsuccessful at the best of times because the two were simply incompatible. But the Thatcherite part of the equation was in practice more or less nullified as a means to raise standards. Over the 18 years of the Thatcher and Major governments, the educational establishment persuaded the Tories that not only should the comprehensive settlement be left unchanged, but that the O Level/CSE exams should be scrapped in favour of GCSE, that more and more coursework should be introduced into school exam marks, that the national curriculum tests should move from simple evaluations of the three “Rs” and a few other subjects to overblown and time consuming events, that polytechnics should become universities and that the numbers in higher education should rise to previously undreamt of levels.
Thatcherism extended more dramatically into higher education. University grants were first allowed to wither on the vine through inadequate uprating and then abolished. In their place came student loans to be repaid after graduation. The post-war ideal of free higher education finally died with the introduction of tuition fees by in the 1990s. Students suddenly found themselves faced with debts of £10,000 or more on graduation with future students living under the threat of ever rising fees.
When people pay for something they become resentful if they feel that they do not get what they pay for. In the case of university students they object to not merely failing their degree entirely, but even to getting a poor degree. That any failure to gain a good degree is largely due to themselves is lost in the resentment that something has been paid for which has not been delivered. Of course, the undergraduate is not paying the full cost of their tuition and they receive a loan on very favourable non-commercial terms. But because they do end up with a hefty debt at the end of their degree, that makes any perceived academic failure more poignant that it was in the days of grants and no tuition fees.
Although the relationship between the teacher and the taught was changed by tuition fees and loans, that in itself would not have been too damaging for university standards. In the end a disgruntled student can do little unless they have money to go to law, which few do. Nor, in all probability, would the courts be eager to get involved in disturbing the ideal of academic freedom. What was damaging was the ending in 1988 of university funding by block grants from a central awarding authority, the University Grants Committee (UGC). The UGC was replaced by the Universities Funding Council (UFC) and block grants were replaced by state money primarily attached to students (quality of teaching and research were also taken into account). The more students, the more income. Universities were immediately changed from places which awarded degrees as they chose to award them based on academic performance to institutions which were anxious to “sell” their wares to students. To do this they needed to present themselves as a university which not only failed few people but awarded most students “good” degrees. The upshot was that the proportion of First Class and Upper Second degrees rose inexorably until today around two thirds of students in the UK receive one or other of them and one third receive Lower Seconds or worse. (Forty years ago the proportions were roughly reversed with a third receiving Firsts and Upper Seconds and two thirds Lower Seconds or worse.)
The decline of the universities was hastened by the vast and unprecedented expansion of those in higher education:
“The number of students at university had risen from 321,000 in the early 1960s to 671,000 in 1979. By 1996 it was headed for 1.5 million, far in excess of the target of 560,000 places set by Robbins thirty years earlier. At the Labour Party Conference in September 1997, Tony Blair promised another 500,000 places at university by 2002.” Dominic Hobson The National Wealth p 325.
The increase in numbers was not matched with an increase in funding. The consequence was a substantial increase in the student/teacher ratio, less tutorial and lecture time and a tendency to favour cheaper arts and social science courses over expensive science degrees. In addition, although staff did not increase in line with student numbers, they did rise and competition for the best staff increased, with the inevitable consequence that the universities at the bottom of the pile – almost exclusively the polytechnics which became universities in 1992 – became institutions which should be described as universities only when the word is placed in inverted commas, with drop out rates previously unheard of in England.
The consequences of the Thatcher period were, as in so many areas, the very reverse of what she supposedly stood for. Just as the European Common Market undermined British sovereignty more than any other single treaty EU treaty agreement rather than achieving Thatcher’s intended aim of strengthening Britain’s position within the EU, so her education reforms promoted the ideas of those who were supposedly her sworn ideological enemies, the progressives. Thatcher became their useful idiot.