Was there a 'Brain Drain' under Thatcher?

27 September 2010
Whilst the Labour Party begins life under new Leader Ed Miliband, its Conference has been knuckling down with issues of policy. Today Shadow Business Secretary Pat McFadden warned that whilst "there are tough decisions coming about how to pay for Higher Education", the Government should not "pull up the drawbridge up from the generation that comes after you."   This echoed the Chairman of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, Lord Krebs, who last week wrote to the Science and Universities Minister David Willetts to express concern at the impending cuts to the research budgets.   Lord Krebs told the Minister that he'd received a letter from the heads of six of the country's top universities, including Oxford, Imperial College and Manchester, warning that the planned reductions in their budgets would lead to staff and students seeking positions overseas.   The claim   Outlining the issue on Radio 4's Today programme, Lord Krebs argued that any 'brain drain' of top talent leaving the country could take a generation to un-do.   He said: "If you look back over the last 30 years and you look at the present population in universities, there is a gap, and that gap was the gap where during the Thatcher years funding for science and universities was cut, and that gap has taken a generation to rebuild."   So having been accused of 'snatching' free milk from primary school pupils, should the Iron Lady also shoulder the blame for cutting tertiary education budgets?   Analysis   Using research conducted by the Institute for Education, it is difficult to fit the figures to the trends described by Lord Krebs.   University admissions increased 24.4 per cent during Lady Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister, whilst public funding for Higher Education grew from £1.1 billion to £3.9 billion.   Even once inflation is accounted for, real terms increases in spending on universities were more common under Thatcher than not. There was a 0.4 decrease in real terms spending in 1984 and a 0.1 per cent fall in 1979, the first year of Lady Thatcher's premiership, however this compares to increases of over 10 and 12 per cent in 1981 and 1990 respectively.   To put this in context, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan's last Governments oversaw real terms falls in spending on Higher Education in four out of five of their years in power.   However rising university enrolment does seem to have slowed under Lady Thatcher, with the 44.4 per cent increase over the 11 years prior to her first administration falling to a 24.4 per cent increase during her tenure. She did also preside over the first fall in university enrolment since 1954 between 1983 and 1985.     However is this a fair measure of any 'brain drain' in the 80s? The number of academic staff employed in the UK's universities is often cited as an equally important indicator of the health of the country's research community.   Using the Universities Statistical Records data for 1972-1993, it is possible to judge Lord Krebs' remarks against the numbers of academics working in the UK.   This does present a slightly stronger case; between 1980 and 1982, the number of academic staff was cut by just over 500, and amongst science staff, there was a more pronounced fall of over 2,000.   However the idea that this gap took a "generation" to bridge is harder to justify, and by 1983 staffing levels in science and across all departments exceeded their 1980 equivalents. Indeed this is a trend that continued throughout Lady Thatcher's time in Number 10, which she left with 25 and 50 per cent more university staff and scientific staff respectively employed in the UK's universities as when she became Prime Minister.     So where does this leave the association drawn by Lord Krebs between university funding and admissions?   This is a difficult question to answer, as the long-term underlying trends in staff and student numbers, and any time-lag between investment and reward are difficult to account for. However looking at the available data, staff and student numbers do seem to increase fastest during the late 1980s and early 1990s, following a period of higher investment.   As Matthew Godwin, Brian Balmer and Jane Gregory of University College London have noted in their study 'The Anatomy of the Brain Drain Debate, 1950-1970s', perceptions of a 'brain drain' were actually highest during the 1960s, when Government investment in universities was actually increasing at a faster rate than it did in either of the two subsequent decades.   Conclusion   As Godwin, Balmer and Gregory also note, fears of a 'brain drain' in the 60s and 70s are difficult to substantiate, as there is not sufficient migration data.   Herein lies the problem with Lord Kreb's assessment. Whilst migration figures might now reasonably record any net decrease in the UK's stock of scientists, there is precious little historical data in this field, meaning that the sort of link sketched by Lord Kreb can only truly be a hypothesis.   Data on university spending and student intake does suggest a correlation between the two, although to what extent there is a causal link is again difficult to establish.   However it is clear that there isn't the sort of 'gap' established during Lady Thatcher's premiership described by Lord Krebs. Real terms spending on Higher Education during her tenure actually increased in all but two years, whilst student admissions also rose by almost a quarter.   Full Fact is looking to improve how we operate. Please email your thoughts on both content and design to feedback@fullfact.org

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