A lifetime of political service by Baroness Gillian Shephard Rt Hon was paid tribute to by the University of East Anglia (UEA) with the awarding of an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law. Baroness Shepherd was granted a life peerage in June 2005 after an extensive period serving as Conservative Member of Parliament for South West Norfolk. Having spent time in the Shadow Cabinet, and the Government, she has held many ministerial roles in departments including Education, Employment, Transport and Agriculture. Upon learning of her Honorary Doctorate her response published by the UEA was, “I am delighted and honoured to be awarded an honorary degree from the UEA. My advice to graduates is to aim high and enjoy your life.”
Given her ministerial experience with Higher Education I thought it only prudent to ask for her opinion on tuition fees and the repayment system, introduced under the Labour government in 1998 during her time in the shadow cabinet. Despite my expectation for her to score political points by pointing out it was Labour who introduced them, her answer was considered and personal. She was in fact very pro the policy citing reasons of improved participation, with an increase of 200,000 applications between 1997 and 2016, and the institutions themselves being held to greater accountability. This is not to say she was not sympathetic to the financial plight of today’s students, openly acknowledging that the expectation not to repay the loans will eventually catching up on HM Treasury.
As she is a Conservative peer, (an ex Chair of the Association of Conservative Peers) I moved on to ask her about the challenges facing today’s Conservative Party, ravaged by differences in opinion about the best strategy to manage Britain’s exit from the European Union. ‘Regaining unity,’ she said. This comes from someone who has a true appreciation of the effects of political infighting. When asked if Brexit is the reason for this split, she described how the problem is far more ingrained. In her time in the Cabinet she saw first-hand the destructive effects of the Masstricht Rebels, a group of Conservative MP’s who consistently defied the Government over the Masstricht Treaty. Some would say that this infighting is what enabled Tony Blair to lead to the Labour Party to it’s landslide victory in 1997. As Baroness Shephard pointed out though, Labour too has been plagued with bitter divisions. During her earlier political career in the 1980’s, the Party was almost split by the formation of Momentum (a left-wing political organisation within the Labour Party), a time she described as ‘very gory.’
Her apparent interest in Higher Education intrigued me, with an impressive CV including ex-Chair of the Council of the Institute of Education, Honorary Fellow at St Hilda’s College Oxford and visiting Professor of Public Policy at King’s College London. When I asked her about her love for universities, her pure enthusiasm and obvious excitement resonated with me. ‘There is nothing that can happen without it first being thought of by an academic,’ she said. It’s refreshing to find a politician who supports causes for a personal passion, with no hidden agenda. Her time as Deputy Chair of the Social Mobility Committee made her consider that although universities are working towards social change by increasing diversity and affecting the local economy, their potential is still unplumbed. Interestingly she believes that scholarships are of the most importance and will have a greater effect on this change than any political influences. ‘Scholarships totally transcend political concerns and it is a constant reminder that across human endeavour there is something higher than venal interest.’
To round off what had been a very insightful interview with a politician whose passion for education should be enough to inspire people across the political spectrum, I asked her what word she would replace ‘wonderful’ with in our well-known anthem “oh UEA is wonderful.” Her answer was ‘inspiring.’ I think that word sums up both UEA, and her.