Thursday, April 11, 2013

Nil Nisi Thatcher

Many Americans are bewildered by the mixed reception that Baroness Thatcher's death has received in the United Kingdom.  Having lived in England for a year or so during her time as Prime Minister, Eli will refrain from commenting on her political career, but there was something he wrote over at the Curry Shack that is worth repeating.   Curry posted remarks from Michael Kelly of the Oxburgh panel

During Mrs Thatcher’s period as Prime Minister, UK science was squeezed hard, and I would argue came out of it better, leaner and fitter. Like dieting, it is not a healthy permanent state, but its absence is definitely unhealthy. In times of plenty, one ‘lets a thousand flowers bloom’ and in tough times, one redoubles the effort to exploit the stock of recently acquired new knowledge, rather than generate more new knowledge and leave it unexploited. This makes sound economic sense. It is the point I made in a lecture (sponsored by Intel) to the Irish Academy of Engineering in Dublin in December 2011.

Michael Kelly is completely wrong about what Thatcher and the conservative government did to research at British universities but the story is instructive.

The first move was to arbitrarily declare all of the polytechnics (locally focused teaching institutions) universities in 1992. This greatly increased the pool of those who could compete for support. Of course, the amount of support stayed the same or went down and the polys now unis didn’t get anything near the level of support needed to move into the research university ranks.

The “response” was to institute departmental rankings, the effect of which was to kill research at many of the older (red bricks) universities as with some exceptions they did not come top of the pile. Almost no departments in the former polytechnics were able to compete and thus received little research funding, while departments at the “best” places, Oxbridge and such, got more of the pie.

A number of very good research groups were left high and dry by this especially since assessment was done by department and not research group. Eli pointed out that the entire farce was a poisoned pawn at the time to friends at both the polys and unis. Eli is Cassandra.

17 comments:

William Connolley said...

I think its hard to get the history straight.

When I went to university (1983-86, undergrad) you got a grant, and ***it was possible to sign up for unemployment benefit in the holidays***. Yes really (I think this stopped before I left). This was so manifestly absurdly generous that no-one really complained when it was stopped.

But, it was part of the transition from "university for the few" to "university for the masses". In the latter state, the previously generous provision couldn't be afforded (and if you want to be cynical, it was going more to the plebs rather than the toffs). It was widely believed (how truely I don't know) that part of the motive for this was to keep 3 years worth of youth off the unemployment roles.

EliRabett said...

Sorry Weasel, you're off topic, which is how Thatcher sold a reorganization of higher education that screwed everyone not called Oxford and Cambidge (slight exaggeration) and made the screwed think she was doing them a favor.

Funding for students is an entirely different ball of wax, except to note that graduate stipends now come from the funding agencies to departments in proportion to the amount of grants that they get. Guess who gets the most.

UK Undergraduate student funding is another tale.

guthrie said...

The blog Lawyers, guns and money has had a number of posts on the businessification of universities and the mad bloat of administrators. One is the view of an English university person, and oddly enough it matches what I have observed over the last 15 years too:
http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2013/03/the-commercialization-of-academia-a-case-study

See also this address by a Canadian University principal about the current attacks on universities for not doing enough research that is business oriented, or doing enough job specific education.
http://business.financialpost.com/2013/03/14/fending-off-the-university-attacking-zombies/?__lsa=37e3-d9ad

Again, it all makes perfect sense.

cRR Kampen said...

Same trend in Holland too, causing me to call all uni's just 'schools' and turn my back on'm.

Today we got a professor of bees at one such pseudouni who researches everything about bees except, of course, the effects of certain pesticides, forbidding his students to research that as well. His chair paid by Bayer, go figure.

Of course the guy is a cabinet advisor.

Anonymous said...

Margaret Thatcher was the perfect example of what happens when you let ideology trump reality.

Her counterpart Ronald Reagan is another (the full list is too long to repeat here without exceeding blogger's storage limit)

~@:>

John said...

Glenda Jackson on Thatcher and Thatcherism.

Check out the pungent remarks in the UK House of Commons by Labor MP Glenda Jackson, formerly a two-time Oscar-winning actress. Ms. Jackson is the daughter of a bricklayer, who opposed the Iraq war.

http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/

Be sure to click the arrow in the middle of the image.

Russell Seitz said...

The rioters chanting Hooray , the witch is dead in Brixton and the blogosphere have got the wrong warlock.

Credit for most of Maggie's mighty deeds is being claimed by her self appointed Minister of Hydrodynamic Psephology, the then Honorable Christopher Monckton. A sample :

"The sonorous eulogies and glittering panegyrics will be spoken by others greater than I. But I, who had the honor to serve as one of her six policy advisers at the height of her premiership, will affectionately remember her and her late husband, Denis, not only for all that they did but for all that they were; not only for the great acts of state but for the little human kindnesses to which they devoted no less thought and energy.

When Britain’s greatest postwar prime minister was fighting a losing battle for her political life, I wrote her a letter urging her to fight on against the moaning Minnies who had encircled her. Within the day, though she was struggling to govern her country while parrying her party, she wrote back to me in her own hand, to say how grateful she was that I had written and to promise that if she could carry on she would.

I had neither expected nor deserved a reply: but that master of the unexpected gave me the undeserved. For no small part of her success lay in the unfailing loyalty she inspired in those to whom she was so unfailingly loyal.

Margaret savored her Soviet soubriquet “the Iron Lady,” and always remained conscious that, as Britain’s first woman prime minister, she must be seen to be tough enough to do the job – the only man in the Cabinet.

It was said of her that at a Cabinet dinner the waiter asked her what she would like to eat. She replied, “I’ll have the steak.”

“And the vegetables?”

“They’ll have the steak, too.”

chek said...

I'm tempted to suggest that the anecdote quoted by Russell contains just about every element of the Visicunt Monckton's self-serving, obsequious arrogance.

But it probably isn't worth the effort.

Russell Seitz said...

How odd the ex-PM's 912 page memoir of The Downing Street Yearsshould omit mention of one of her six policy advisors.

Anonymous said...

Check for reference to "The Blithering, Pompous Ass[Fool]"

No, on second thought, that would probably apply to pretty much everyone in Thatcher's circle.

~@:>

Russell Seitz said...

Now This is Cabinet timber !

lurgee said...

"The first move was to arbitrarily declare all of the polytechnics (locally focused teaching institutions) universities in 1992."

With all due respect to the Mighty Rabbett, the Iron Lady was melted down in 1990 and the changes mentioned above were wrought by her successor, the rather less iron John Major.

Anonymous said...

The steak/vegetables bit was a Spitting Image sketch. Like so many moments of genius comedy, it got quoted as a real event. Thus are many comedic myths born.

http://youtu.be/OyU8qmzGsEg

J Bowers said...

Psycopathic bitch. Good riddance. Guess where I'm from.

yea-mon said...

Russell Seitz said...

Credit for most of Maggie's mighty deeds is being claimed by her self appointed Minister of Hydrodynamic Psephology, the then Honorable Christopher Monckton. A sample :

"The sonorous eulogies and glittering panegyrics will be spoken by others greater than I. But I, who had the honor to serve as one of her six policy advisers at the height of her premiership

Ah yes, the multi-talented Lord Monckton, who took part in Maggie's demolishing of the Royal Navy's Ship Designers in the odd "Short-Fat Ship" vs. "Long-Thin Ship" debacle of the late 80s. In summary, a private company said Short, Fat ships were the best, the Royal Navy said no - we'll stick with what the science says. Maggie supported private enterprise, Moncton supported Magggie with his "hydrodynamic calculations", and so a 1 million quid investigation was ordered from Lloyds of London. The result...

...Royal Navy vindicated on 22 of the 23 pertinent performance stats.

Of course, the Ship design dept. of the RN had to be shut to salve the feelings of Maggie, Monckton and their Ilk.

yea-mon said...

The “response” was to institute departmental rankings, the effect of which was to kill research at many of the older (red bricks) universities as with some exceptions they did not come top of the pile.

Another effect of the ratings, which depended on the amount of published research was the winowing out of "low performers" from departments. Many of these low perforemers were actually high performers when it came to teaching and getting students graduated. Ironically the best teachers were those shown the door in the bid to improve universities.

Graeme said...

Eli - who was the prime minister in 1992 when your "first move" was made? Clue: not Mrs Thatcher.