The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1995Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech at the Queen’s Anniversary Prizes Dinner – 9 February 1995

Below is the transcript of Mr Major’s speech at the Queen’s Anniversary Prizes Dinner on 9th February 1995.


Four years ago – as a matter of principle and for the sake of our national interest – I said I would put education – standards of education – at the top of my agenda.

I did so because our future prosperity – and our own very civility – depends on a population that is well-educated and highly skilled.

But there were other reasons, too. Good education is the key that unlocks the door to a better future for every child. It is the route by which people – throughout history – have risen from the bottom of the heap to the top.

And literally millions of people have had their lives enriched by the sheer joy of learning; by the love of literature, the arts and the sciences.

Yet, in the past, too many children – bright eyed curious, normal children – university might have been another planet, an impossibly remote place whose arcane activities never seemed to touch their lives. University, many felt, was not “for the likes of us”. So much talent and potential went to waste.

I knew children like that; in some senses I was one myself. So when I became Prime Minister I wanted to see that change.

The target I set for the ’90s was to make a move forward in further and higher education greater than anything we had seen for a generation.

Everyone should have a chance to succeed on merit. Not because of who they are, but of what they are, and what they have proved themselves to be. That is what I mean by a classless society – and high-class education is at the very core of it.

Tonight we are here to honour today’s prizewinners. And can I add my own – and warmest – congratulations to all those the winners have rightly received?

The awards are given by the Queen’s Anniversary Trust. So it is reasonable today to look back 40 plus years to the time of the Coronation.

Then – though it’s hard to believe – there were only 16 universities in England – and just over 100,000 students. Less than one in 20 of all young people went into higher education.

Ten years later the Robbins report set out wider objectives for higher education beyond the purely academic. Those principles are still valid today.

In particular, Robbins proposed significant expansion of higher education. So, in the 1960s, the 10 colleges of advanced technology became universities. New universities were created. And 30 polytechnics were set up to offer education with a vocational emphasis.

Finally, the pioneering institution of the Open University was established to provide opportunities for those who wanted to study from home.

By 1979, one person in 8 was entering higher education. Excellent – but still not alpha plus. For today’s world throws up constant new challenges. Patterns of work that had seemed settled since the Industrial Revolution have gone for ever.

That was why, in 1991, I launched White Papers on education beyond 16 that set out a vision for the rest of this century.

We promised to enable more young people to go on to Higher Education. To scrap the out-dated distinction between universities and polytechnics. And to provide the funding that made renewed expansion possible.

As a result today more young people are going on to university than ever before. It took 25 years to double participation levels up to the 1980s. It took only five to double them again between 1989 and 1994. We now have the highest graduation rate in the EC.

Nearly one in three young people now enjoy higher education. There are now over 1 million students following full-time courses and a further 500,000 studying part-time.

We have abolished the binary line to enable our universities to offer wider choice and diversity. Today there are degree courses in universities in subjects such as art and design, and business studies, as well as in more traditional academic subjects.

We need those new skills. At the start of The Queen’s reign twice as many people worked on farms as in financial services. Now seven times as many work in financial services as on farms.

Look at some of our other great competitive strengths – pharmaceuticals, health care, telecoms, IT software, biotechnology, food processing, engineering, design, fashion, the media. The list is almost infinitely extendable.

Britain is less than a quarter of one per cent of the world’s land mass; one per cent of the world’s population. But in the growth industries of the 21st century we are in the world’s top three.

This is due not just to our native genius – but to one of the best education systems in the world.

Look at what Britain’s higher education system has produced in the last 40 years:

– Watson and Crick unfolding the beautiful symmetry of life in the DNA double helix;

– Cesar Milstein and others at the MRC Cambridge who have created a whole new industry, biotechnology, on the back of their work;

– Hawking and the physicists who plumb the secrets of our universe from the smallest particle to the infinity of space.

Our universities continue to lead the world in research. No less than 30 Nobel Prize winners from the UK between 1957 and 1992 in physics, chemistry or physiology – nearly one in seven of the total.

And let no-one say that pure research is not commercial. Faraday’s pure research led to our harnessing electricity. A discovery whose value is greater than the total capitalisation of London’s Stock Exchange.

We must exploit the resource of intellect to improve the prosperity and the quality of life for all. I want to see our universities as world-leaders in forging links between the academic world and industry and commerce.

Look at the growth of science parks in places like Cambridge, the close ties with industry of a Warwick or Salford, and the development of university companies to exploit new ideas. Approaching one-third of university income comes from private sources. All these things are good for the country and a boon to all those bright young people who will make our future.

Young people are not the only gainers in today’s universities. Yes, lifelong learning does matter. The number of mature entrants has risen by 140% since 1979. They now account for over a half of all enrolments.

People who thought the doors of academe were for ever locked against them are finding them open.

But I am not complacent. I do not pretend all has – or will be – easy. Expansion inevitably brings problems in its wake. And change is ever the mother and father of insecurity.

So we now need to pause and think how higher education should develop in the future. That is why we have launched a national consultation – and I hope that all of you here in higher education will have your say.

We have to look at the competitive challenge that lies ahead. At the needs of society in the twenty-first century. We must ask ourselves. How best can higher education preserve and enhance all that is good from our past, while meeting the needs of the future? Can we, in today’s world, any longer equip people with all the skills and knowledge they will need in life in one initial dose of higher education?

Above all, how best can we accommodate change without compromising standards?

So an important debate lies ahead. But have no doubt. I see higher education as one of Britain’s great success stories. And, whatever unfolds, I am determined to keep it that way.

It is now just under two years since we launched our reformed Further Education sector. Since then over 500 colleges have been given the freedom to run their own affairs.

Visit an FE college today and you’ll experience the bustle and hum of learning.

All human life is there – from eager young school leavers to retired people taking exams for the first time in 50 years. From full-timers with their eyes on university or top flight jobs, to part-timers brushing up their skills to get on at work or to start a business themselves. From apprentice hair dressers to apprentice historians.

The last two years have seen dramatic changes. More students are staying on. They are getting better results. And they’ve been given more choice.

Back in 1979 only 40% of young people were staying on in education after the age of 16. Now over 70% stay on in full-time education after 16 – most of the rest are in part-time training either in colleges or based at work.

As a result, one awful British stereotype has virtually bitten the dust – the 16 year old with no qualifications, no ambitions and no intention of learning anything ever again.

But still we need to do more.

First, we want more people to benefit. Our target is to expand by 28% over five years. We are providing the funding for that.

Second, colleges must work even more closely with employers to meet the needs of their own local labour market. Our new employer-led modern apprenticeships will help here too. By the year 2000 our target is for some 70,000 of these each year.

Third, we have to do more to raise standards of vocational qualifications – so they truly earn the parity of esteem in which I profoundly believe.

One of the curses of education in the ’50s and ’60s was that vocational education was often disparaged, and rarely admired.

In seeking to address that, serious errors were made. We still live with some of the consequences. There is no place in education for tackling low standards by levelling down the high.

I know it is not a fashionable view. But, for my own part, I believe that a high quality GCE A Level must remain at the core of further education in England. It has underpinned a 3 year university degree that is a benchmark for academic excellence. We remain committed to it.

Our strategy is to level up, not down. That is our aim through the General National Vocational Qualification. GNVQs were launched a mere 2 years ago. But already this year over 150,000 students are beginning a GNVQ course in England – equivalent to a quarter of all 16 years olds. From a standing start to 150,000 in 2 years.

That is astonishing.

So there’s no doubt about their popularity with students. Nor about the enthusiasm and commitment of the teaching staff who deliver them. Good. But we can do better still.

The Chief Inspector of Schools and the Further Education Inspector have done us a signal service in showing what more we must do to make GNVQs the equal to the best in Europe.

Parity of esteem is vital. That means more hard edged, practical material. It means raising teachers’ expectations of their students. It means clarity for teachers on what they should cover and to what standard. But it also means less prescription about how they should do it.

More external inspection to ensure rigorous standards. But a simple assessment system that does not leave teachers knee deep in paper at 3 o’clock in the morning.

We are working on that. We’ve put in 25 million pounds extra to help course support, best practice and training. Ron Dearing’s work to extend GNVQ courses for 14-16 year olds in schools will feed through into existing courses. The prize, if we get it absolutely right, is huge.

People ask why I care so much about standards in education. Well, picture, if you will, the small child setting out with shining morning face for the first day at school – her life before her – fearful yes, but full of all the limitless potential that is breathed at birth into every child. Then ask yourself how could you not care?

That has been my child – and, no doubt, yours. And that child is being born today and tomorrow and the next day – in Brixton and in Borrowdale alike. A child whose chance in life will be decided by what they learn in school and in college and in university. For the sake of every one of those children, the best chances must be open to all.

Parents lay the foundation of every young life. But it is you in our colleges and universities who finally top out the edifice of learning. Yours is a high and honourable vocation – among the first in this or any land – and it is my privilege to salute you, and above all, the prizewinners tonight.