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The last time a Conservative Government set higher education targets

  • 1 September 2016
  • By Nick Hillman

We recently made available on this site an important but hard-to-find historical text: Tony Crosland’s famous speech cementing the binary division between polytechnics and universities, which was delivered in 1965.

Another speech that is incredibly important in British higher education policymaking but similarly hard to obtain is Ken Baker’s speech at Lancaster University in 1989, which set a firm target for the expansion of higher education.

When Tony Blair pledged that half of all young people should go to university in 1999, it was fiercely opposed by the Conservative Opposition. Yet, just a decade before, a Conservative Secretary of State for Education and Science had been just as keen on having a target for the expansion of higher education.

As Professor Peter Mandler, President of the Historical Society, recalled in a lecture last year:

By January 1989, Baker was ready to announce, in a famous speech at Lancaster University (actually not as famous as it should be), not just steady growth but a sudden transition to mass higher education. The goal was to reach for American levels of participation, as befitted a country aspiring to American levels of affluence. His new target for 2000 was 30%. From 1989, therefore, the course was set for the revolution in higher- education participation that we experienced in the ‘90s and the ‘noughties.

The after-effects of the Lancaster speech were much like the after-effects of Robbins, creating a kind of euphoria, compounded of pent-up demand, the entirely novel boost provided by GCSE, and the market signals sent by the unleashing of supply. The euphoria was in fact much greater amongst potential applicants than it was in the media, which on the whole remained sceptical about expansion on the grand scale, even in its leftish incarnations, because of the cuts in the unit of resource that made it possible.

For those interested in knowing more, we are now making Ken Baker’s full speech available here.

(Lord Baker, as he is now styled, continues to think about education issues and was recently interviewed on his life on Radio 4.)

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