Thatcher’s Free Market Legacy In Higher Education

This article was originally published on the 26th April 2013 on the Cardiff Met SU Retro website. 

Even if you don’t know Margaret Thatcher policies you will know her name. But what about her legacy on education?

During her rule as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced transformational free market concepts to breed competitiveness in higher education. An example of a successful policy she introduced was the rise of fees for international students in 1981. Consequently there was a initial decrease in international students. but contrary to fears, subsequent numbers receded and universities benefitted from the increased funding it provided.

One of the areas she had the most impact was in research. In 1986 what was called the Research Assessment Exercise was first implemented. This had similar controversy to international fees, with fears that it would ultimately destroy ‘pure research’, to be replaced by pure market orientated research. Though critics point to a decline in research in liberal humanities others argue that it was an important move to an increasing application of academia to everyday life. This was combined with a cut in infrastructural support of research. Thatcher feared that universities used such support at the expense of accountability. In fact this policy eventually placed the UK behind only the U.S. on all international indices ranking the quality of global scientific research.

Yet, today it is arguable that these free market concepts were a key factor for the financial crisis in 2008 and subsequent recession due to the nature of the risk, and broader culture it nurtured. Just one of its more negative effects is its impact on youth unemployment. Though UK figures are not as severe as other countries in Europe – In Spain its rate is at a shocking 55% – on the 17th April this year Our Office of National Statistics revealed 979,000 unemployed 16-24 year olds in the UK, a figure that has led the Federation of Small Businesses to call on the government to support small firms in taking on young people. Within education, as successive labour and conservative governments since Thatcher have continued similar policies of privatisation then the current coalition government policy that introduced higher fees of potentially up to £9000 can be seen as a logical step in such a approach. As such contemporary critics of Thatcher say that due to this direction qualities such as critique, thinking, and the spirit of pure exploration, have now become an unusual deviation from a current norm of the pursuit of individual wealth. Therefore, they say, universities as a site for dissent and for critical thinking have significantly disappeared due to Thatcher’s legacy.

However perhaps Thatcher’s strongest legacy is her undeniable conviction in her ideals and a spirit that inspired other leaders around the globe and the people of eastern europe trapped by The Iron Curtain. It is a legacy that earns the description as a conviction politician from all sids of the political spectrum. Indeed it is fair to say that such a spirit has probably inspired a certain number of young people in the UK to realise their own convictions.

The most important lesson to realize though, is that we should avoid allowing free-market concepts to affect education in the same manner as it affected the UK banking sector, who’s culture of risk and huge bonuses led to economic disaster.

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