100 years of women in FE and skills. Colleges and their communities: Baroness Margaret Sharp
In the fifth of our posts on the women who shaped further education – marking 100 years of women's suffrage – we consider the contribution of Baroness Margaret Sharp, a longtime champion of further education who gave perhaps the clearest and fullest statement of the relationship between colleges and their communities
A tireless champion of further education and for many years the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for further and higher education in the Lords, Baroness Margaret Sharp has been a longstanding advocate of colleges’ capacity to offer leadership and shape the educational offer in their communities. Until her retirement from the Lords in 2016, she was widely acknowledged as one of the few peers to understand the sector well. Her ideas remain influential and she continues to lobby for strong, stable and adequately funded FE colleges able to take a leading role in their towns, cities and regions.
Before her political career began in the 1980s, Baroness Sharp was an economist and civil servant. After graduating from Newnham College, Cambridge, she worked in the (then) Board of Trade before moving becoming a lecturer at London School of Economics in 1964, specialising in public policy issues. From 1973 to 1976, she lived in Washington DC where her husband was Commercial Counsellor at the British Embassy and she had a guest Fellowship at the Brookings Institution. On returning to the UK, she took up a post at the National Economic Development Office and became interested in the areas of skills and innovation. She pursued these interests as a research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), at Sussex University, between 1981 and 1999, and from 1992 to 1999 as Co-Director of the Economic and Social Research Council Centre at SPRU, leading a series of projects on technology and innovation.
She became active in politics in the 1980s, first with the Social Democratic Party and then with the Liberal Democrats. She worked closely with leader Paddy Ashdown in the 1990s on policy development, including in employment and education. Joining the Lords in 1998 as Baroness Sharp of Guildford, one of her first challenges was working on the bill that created the Learning and Skills Council, which oversaw and supported colleges in the period from 2000 to 2010. As her knowledge of the sector grew, she established important contacts with organisations such as the Association of Colleges and the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). She became Liberal Democrat education spokesperson in the Lords in 2000, masterminding, among other things, the party’s rejection at that stage (2000–2010) of top-up fees for university tuition and arguing strongly against their shift of policy in 2010.
Increasingly concerned at the drift to increased central control of the sector under Labour, after 2010 she began to work closely with John Hayes MP, skills minister in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. Hayes was committed to reversing the trend towards increased government intervention in colleges and to introducing new ‘freedoms and flexibilities’ to the sector. In 2011, Baroness Sharp was asked by NIACE to lead an Independent Commission on Colleges in their Communities. The Commission, under her sharp-minded, critical leadership, strove to show how colleges could become more proactive in their communities, taking a leadership role in close collaboration with employers, local authorities and other key organizations, such as job centres and third-sector providers.
The Commission’s final report set out a vision of colleges as a ‘dynamic nucleus’ at the heart of their communities, promoting a ‘shared agenda of activities which both fulfil their central role of providing learning and skills training to young people and adults, but also reach out into their communities, catalysing a whole range of further activities’. It saw colleges as ‘the central player in a network of partnerships, dynamic in the sense of developing and engaging with other partners’. Achieving this vision required the formation of partnerships based on mutual trust, joined-up local government, a new generation of entrepreneurial college leaders, more flexible funding so colleges had more discretion in allocating resources and a new approach to governance and accountability with a focus on community engagement.
The report remains highly influential, perhaps more so than ever given the renewed interest in the relevance of place and community to the mission of further education and skills. However, subsequent ministers have not shared Hayes’s commitment to colleges’ autonomy and their role in the community and the focus of his successors has shifted to increasing the role and control of employers. Baroness Sharp however remains a thorn in the side of politicians who fail to recognize the value of the sector or underestimate its potential in supporting economic growth and tackling issues such as social mobility. Typically, she used her farewell parliamentary speech in 2016 to warn of the chaos being created by rushed apprenticeship reforms. She remains a friend to the sector, including to FETL, and continues to be intellectually engaged in discussions of its future, attending, for example, FETL’s 2018 lecture on the highly topical subject of whistleblowing. Her resolve in promoting further education as a means of addressing social inequalities and the economic and social challenges of the near future is, happily, undiminished.