Margaret Thatcher, who died of a stroke earlier this week, made higher education reform a priority both during her time as the Secretary of State for Education and later on as Prime Minister. From her own experience, she believed that university education was failing students in Britain because of its overly protected position and its insulation from the market.
She set out to address these problems with vigor and her policies were continued not only by the current Tory-led administration but even by Tony Blair — the Prime Minister representing the opposing Labour Party through the 1990s.
According to Terence Kealey in The Daily Telegraph, Thatcher introduced the market to British universities by instituting for the first time fees for international students. Prior to 1981, students coming to British universities from abroad got what was in effect a free education. University leaders opposed the change, predicting that the fees would insure that no international students ever applied to British universities again – a prediction that proved spectacularly wrong.
The leadership of British universities often being wrong on important issues, it was no surprise that Mrs Thatcher's policy was a success. After a transient dip in international student numbers, they have soared ever since, to provide a vast influx of funding and the beginnings of a market to British universities.
Margaret Thatcher's next step was to cut infrastructural support monies for research to the university sector: she felt that some universities were not using their research monies well. When the cuts were introduced, they were denounced by the leadership of the British universities which, with one voice, predicted that they would be a disaster from which the British economy in general and British universities in particular, would never recover.
There too her opponents proved to be on the wrong side. The move reinvigorated research in Britain and pushed it behind only the US on all international assessment tables that rank the quality of scientific research in the world.
The true success of Thatcher's policies can be seen by the fact that their spirit has guided the reforms pursued by both Tony Blair and the current Prime Minister David Cameron. Her drive for privatization was reflected by the introduction of top-up fees for local students – something that likewise was predicted to be the end of higher education in British universities.
The leadership of British universities often being wrong on important issues, it was no surprise that fees have been a success. The later fee hikes having been so recently introduced, we are currently witnessing a dip in some numbers, but on past form they will recover, to leave the universities better funded and more receptive to student needs than before.