To Margaret Thatcher, the University of Oxford was like a helicopter parent. Britain’s late former prime minister spent adulthood distancing herself from her alma mater’s base of academic dissenters. It only made sense that, once Thatcher’s quest to commodify education gelled into national circles, the university would deny her its most reflective rite, an honorary doctorate.
The snub, which dates back to 1985, became a mutual discord with time. After 5,000 Oxford students and over 700 academics declined to reward her with the degree, Thatcher’s spokesman said, “If they do not wish to confer the honor, the prime minister is the last person to wish to receive it.”
But London Mayor Boris Johnson refuses to accept the impasse. Not only does he want Oxford to apologetically grant her an honorary doctorate, he also wants the university to name a college after her.
Johnson’s conquest seems like little more than a political stunt. The London mayor may vie for a Downing Street residence in 2018, and getting big academia to recoil its dismissal of a conservative authority would surely attract Tories across Britain.
The chances of Oxford conceding to the mayor’s ploy seem as slim as that of the 900-year-old university forgetting its past. The institution prides itself in Christ Church Cathedral’s stained glass windows, Merton College’s library of medieval literature and The Queen’s College’s neoclassical walls. Throughout the university, those who endured Thatcher’s reigns — first as Prime Minister Edward Heath’s education secretary, then as Heath’s successor — recall the shrinking subsidies. And they remember when the Education Reform Act replaced long-awaited tenures with fine-print contracts. Now months after Thatcher’s death, the university is only willing to name a few student scholarships after the Iron Lady.
Naming a college after Thatcher would overlook Oxford’s history of opposition against her. And it would exaggerate a bond between the university and the politician that only slightly existed.
Even fans of Thatcher must see that Oxford was a poor fit for her. As a student at Somerville College, Thatcher — or Margaret Roberts, as she was then called — held beliefs that seldom aligned with those of the university’s establishment. She echoed the stances of her father, Alfred Roberts, Grantham’s grocer-turned-mayor who believed personal discipline would unconditionally lift the lower classes. Sure, she made good marks and became a voice for the university’s few Tory students before graduating Somerville in 1947 and earning a Master’s degree there three years later. But at a place flooded with history, Thatcher was an anomaly who obsessed over profitability.
Her fixation never left. As part of her 1981 Education Reform Act, Thatcher gave each British university an ultimatum: cut spending by 18 per cent in one month or lose academic funding. A widespread failure to comply soon cost Britain’s higher education sector 3,000 workers. Her policies denied grants to qualified students and trashed unpopular but necessary academic programs. Those who aspired to be environmentalists, physicians and ecologists have particularly suffered. Thatcher’s final slap at Oxford came in 1998, when she donated £2 million to Cambridge University.
Boris Johnson cares little of Oxford’s legacy if he truly believes Thatcher deserves a degree or building from the school. This is not a matter of digging a “political gutter” — as former Sunday Telegraph editor Peregrine Worsthone once wrote — but rather one about a storied university gripping its identity. Now, if officials at University of Buckingham or Cambridge sought to honor the late prime minister with a degree or building, I would say it couldn’t make more sense.