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Shirley Williams’s approach to higher education policy still echoes loudly many decades on

  • 13 April 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, recalls the contribution to higher education policy made by Shirley Williams, whose death was reported yesterday.

The Rt Hon. the Baroness Williams of Crosby, more commonly known as Shirley Williams, has sadly died after a long and full life. She was perhaps best known for her role as a Labour Secretary of State for Education and Science in the 1970s, as one of the Gang of Four that established the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s and, later on, as an active Liberal Democrat peer.

She left her mark on higher education. As a young student, she had been the first woman to chair the Oxford University Labour Club. Later in life, she was a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In between, and early on in her parliamentary career, she spent over two years as the Minister of State for Education and Science (1967-69).

At the time, five years on from the Robbins report, there was a debate over how to reduce the public cost of higher education. So Shirley Williams produced a list of 13 points, designed to help deliver savings while maintaining quality.

The version of the list presented to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) floated:

  1. a reduction or removal of student grant-aid, coupled with a system of loans;
  2. a similar policy at the postgraduate level only;
  3. a more restrictive policy as regards the admission of overseas students;
  4. the requirement that grant-aided students should enter specified kinds of employment for a period after graduation, which might have the effect of reducing applications;
  5. the greater use of part-time and correspondence courses as alternatives to full-time courses;
  6. the possibility that the most able should have the opportunity to complete a degree course in two years;
  7. the possibility of some students not proceeding to the customary three-year course, but to a different course lasting only two years and leading to a different qualification;
  8. the possible insertion of a period between school and university, which would give school-leavers a better opportunity to formulate their views as to whether or not they wished to proceed to some form of higher education;
  9. the more intensive use of buildings and equipment, including the possibility of reorganisation of the academic year;
  10. more sharing of facilities between adjacent institutions;
  11. more home-based students;
  12. the development of student housing associations, and other forms of loan-financed provision for student residence;
  13. some further increase in student/staff ratios.

The initial response was far from warm. The article by Alec Merrison, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol (1969-84), from which I have lifted this list (Universities Quarterly, vol. 30, pp.2-14) reminds us that these 13 points ‘were pretty summarily dismissed by the universities’. Moreover, there was apparently ‘little doubt that at least the manner of their dismissal harmed the universities’ stock of credit with politicians and, I would guess, the civil servants.’

The vice-chancellors of the time could not have known that Shirley Williams’s list would come to read, more than 50 years later, like a remarkably prescient summary of the main higher education debates to come over the next half a century under future Conservative, Labour and Coalition Governments.

Just a few years after the 13 points had first appeared, many of the ideas were revisited in an education white paper, Education: A Framework for Expansion (1972), produced by Margaret Thatcher during her time as the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Others took more time to cut through.

But, today, student loans (including for postgraduates), distance learning, two-year degrees, sub-degree courses, sharing facilities, commuter students and an increase in staff/student ratios are just some of the topics that continue to dominate debates about public spending on higher education.

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