The Iron Lady

This page written circa 29 May, 2014.

Reading biographies of Margaret Thatcher, I have been astounded to read of the parlous state of the UK in the late 1970s. Inflation was over 25%, while unions crippled the country. By 1979, income per capita had fallen below that of France and Germany, for the first time in 300 years, in spite of the wars, and was projected to sink below that of Italy and Spain by the end of the century. With prices of everyday items doubling in less than 4 years, and the GBP devaluing, the natives were in dire circumstances. Her biographer Kenneth Harris wrote

For [Prime Minister Thatcher], the Social Market, the free economy, were not economic devices but moral systems which must replace the Socialist society and set the people free. [Before the 1979 election] Mrs Thatcher used the word `evangelical' to describe her role as a political leader [...]. There is this strong Messianic streak in Thatcherism that [her opponents] gravely underestimated. Her economic theories were not devices but tablets of stone: she was leading a moral crusade to save the nation - which is why she would have no time for arguments with concensus or pragmatic politicians. [...] Indeed, if the sobriquet of Thatcherism is to have any real meaning, it is a description of attitude rather than policies.
Whether you look at Simon Sinek on or Margaret Thatcher in the UK, the distinguishing feature is being driven by "first principles". Believe in noble principles, and strive for goals consistent with them. Thatcher forced through many cuts and reforms, some obviously necessary. She turned her nation around.

Nevertheless, having been an "expansionist Education Secretary", she produced a decade of falling standards in education, allowing `comprehensive schools' to erase grammar schools, and slashing university budgets. Thatcher blamed `comprehensivation' for ruining education. She wanted it improved, felt that "something had to be done", yet held so few ideas as to how it might be accomplished that her own minister described her thoughts as "inchoate". Plans to give parents choice, so that they could reward successful schools, foundered. Once the economy was sorted out, she lost the plot. Her Great Education Reform Bill ("Gerbil") was an improvised mess and took up a post-war-record amount of parlimentary time. Like many losers in the education-reform game, she tried to tinker with curriculum. She could not apply the laudable tenets of capitalism to education. Mechanisms to allow educational institutions to respond to the market, to rise or fall on their own merits, all foundered. Numbers at university increased, and quality fell.

In fairness it is a tough problem to sort education. Who is the customer: student, employer, or government? What are the desired outcomes?

The PhD is a recent invention. Essentially a German idea, it came via the USA to Great Britain only in the 1920s, and to Australia in the 1940s. There exists now an extensive literature on PhD supervision. A majority of scholars consider supervision to be one and the same thing as mentoring, while the rest acknowledge mentoring to be at least the single most important of its parts. Advisors must be mentors. It is also now recognised that PhD supervision is world-widely done very badly. Although few of the complaints appear in scholarly "quality-controlled" publications, some do, and the issues are discussed in serious places, including Nature. As there is a (separate) growing body of literature on mentoring, one might ask how the job could be bungled so widely. The answer is deceptively simple: prior to about 1970 the candidate was considered to be of top-notch intelligence and responsible for his own fate, but with the widening of education to include volumes of the less-gifted comes the grudging acknowledgement that students need, and are paying for, help and guidance. This has yet to propagate through to providing professional development for staff, or quality control for the process. Many people think the widening wasteful.

What is it that a PhD student must learn, what ability does the degree certify the holder to possess? How much of the degree is about the specialisation---electronics, psychology, literature, pharmacology or whatever---and how much is about qualities beyond discipline? I suspect many a politician would not be able to hazard answers to any of the above questions. (They are all known, by the way, these are not rhetorical or provocative questions.) Politicians sure as hell don't know how to manage, improve, or redesign educational institutions. Neither do most vice-chancellors. Education herself is more of an Iron Lady than Dame Maggie.

Thatcher demonstrated that some things privatise well, but not others. Electricity privatises well, since it is readily broken into multiple generating and distributing entities who compete and cooperate. Water is different, as it is less transportable, less predictable in its supply, and more essential to life. Thatcher did not answer for us this question with respect to education. If the USA offers lessons, the answers are not clear-cut.

This where I tell you the answers. Of course, nobody is going to listen to me, but long after I am dead you will be able to pop back here and check that I was right.

First guiding principle: Leave curriculum to academics in consultation with employers. This is essentially what is already done in engineering, as required by bodies such as IPENZ and IEAust, who accredit the degrees. Medicine is similar. Extend this mechanism to all disciplines.
Second guiding principle: Government should only provide money for universities (and the final years of high schools) indirectly, through scholarships awarded to students, contracts for putting favoured courses in place, grants to influence direction, purchase of statistics, etc. This means privatising educational institutions, in effect if not law. Government would become progressively more free to alter spending year to year, subject to a rate limit that acknowledges that change must be slow owing to the gestation period of graduates. Educational institutions will automatically come into direct competition, and will move to a model where they set the price of their product, compared to the present system where they are told what the government will pay for the product, and the number they will be funded to produce.
Third guiding principle: Do not try to "herd cats", by which I mean apply no legislation, but apply influence only by incentive, the grants in p2 above, etc. Banking systems might require government regulation, but not education ones.
Finally, recommendations. (1) Recognise separately career academics, and academics with commercial experience in their discipline. I won't go so far as to say "promote only the latter", but something along those lines. There is a place for both, but management suits only the latter. As is often the case in engineering companies, educational managers should be created from the pool with discipline experience, leading to a class with experience both as educators and managers. (2) Separate teaching and assessment. High schools already have common, external assessment. Universities might achieve this by a variety of methods such as hiring separate staff to set exams, exchanging exams with sister institutions, or using internal staff who have no conflicts of interest, etc.


Campbell, John, 2003. "Margaret Thatcher: The Iron Lady", Jonathan Cape. (An even-handed and detailed biography.)

Cyranoski, David, Natasha Gilbert, Heidi Ledford, Anjali Nayar, and Mohammed Yahia. (2011.) "The PhD factory", Nature 472, 276-279 (2011), doi:10.1038/472276a (An easy read.)

Harris, Kenneth, 1988. "Thatcher", George Weidenfeld & Nicholson. (A sympathetic and brief biography.)

Johnson, Lesley; Lee, Alison; Green, Bill. "The PhD and the autonomous self: Gender, rationality and postgraduate pedagogy", Studies in Higher Education, 25.2 (Jun 2000): 135-147.

Jones, Sir Robert, 2004. "Degrees for Everyone", Hazard, ISBN:978-1877270703. (A humerous extrapolation.)

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