Baroness Blackstone: 'I want a world-class system of higher education'

Labour's former Higher Education Minister explains where she thinks Michael Gove is going wrong.

One thing is certain – you will not find Tessa Blackstone tending to her allotment this week after standing down as vice-chancellor of Greenwich University. For a start, she does not have one. "Even if I did, it would be full of thistles six feet high," she says.

Baroness Blackstone is more likely to be found immersing herself in one of the many ventures she has been involved with over the years to which she can now devote more time. These include the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust and the British Library – both of which she chairs – and a project to modernise European universities, which she runs with Jo Ritzen, former president of Maastricht University. Then there is the House of Lords – an institution she has not been able to give enough time to during her seven years at Greenwich University.

She leaves at what many would claim is a trying time for universities as they cope with the new fees regime ushering in the £9,000 maximum next year – and government moves to introduce visa restrictions, which are having a serious impact on the recruitment of international students – the lifeblood of many a university nowadays with the full-cost fees they may be asked for.

At Greenwich, she found that numbers from India and the sub-continent were down by 20 per cent this year. "Million+ (a university think-tank that largely represents the former polytechnics) reported that all their members' overseas numbers were down," she says. "Vince Cable said that it was all due to lurid newspaper articles in India saying that they were being banned from the UK. Why he should be surprised about that, I don't know. You have to stop and think before you do something like this and think about what might be the unintended consequences. It's a bit late to do so now."

She is referring to the Business Secretary's address to the Universities UK conference – the body that represents vice-chancellors – last month, where she was first to challenge him after what many considered to be a rather bland speech given the tempestuous times facing universities.

Talks between the Government and universities have led to an easing of the restriction on visas, but Baroness Blackstone is still not confident the figures for overseas students will get back to where they were. "It could be that numbers will build up again, but I wouldn't be over-confident about it. Once they decide to go to Australia, the United States or Singapore, that could be it."

The controversy threatens to undermine the UK's reputation as the second most popular overseas destination for students in the world (the United States is the first). It comes, too, at a time of uncertainty created by the Coalition Government's decision to allow tuition fees to rise to up to £9,000 a year from next September.

"It is a little uncertain what the effect will be at present," she says, "particularly amongst those students who come from debt-averse families. I don't know whether they will think, 'it's all in the future – we don't have to pay upfront.' But £27,000 before you have to think about the maintenance payments is a lot of debt."

Wearing her old hat as higher education minister in Tony Blair's Labour government, Baroness Blackstone recalls when fees were first introduced in the late Nineties. "The £1,000-a-year fee then was means-tested and poor students didn't pay anything," she adds. "The £3,000-a-year top-up fee was also very different."

She is an enthusiast for the suggestion by Labour leader Ed Miliband that the new fee level should be capped at £6,000. "I think it's an interesting proposal, because I always said that I didn't think the fees should be as high as this – £5,000 or £6,000 was what I originally thought the figure that fees rose to should have been."

She is not among the doom merchants who believe that universities will close as a result of the rise – "I'm always optimistic," she says. However, she would not rule out one or two mergers to cope with the new financial regime. "Some students might be very discouraged about the amount of debt you would sustain," she adds. "What worries me about the system is the way it is structured. Some youngsters are going to be charged more than others. The highest fees are being charged by the universities with the most income, who are going to be able to pay the highest salaries.

"I want a world-class system of higher education in the UK where all universities are of good quality and not a few world-class ones with a vast gap between the top and the bottom. That's not the kind of system the UK should have. It is extreme inequality."

Looking back on her years in higher education – she was Master of Birkbeck College for 10 years between 1987 and 1997 before going into government with Labour – she recalls two highlights from her two spells as a vice-chancellor: rescuing Birkbeck from the prospect of financial collapse in the Eighties and ensuring its place as the central place at the heart of the higher education system as the key institution for part-timers, thus ensuring a lasting reputation for widening participation. She also rates building up research at Greenwich as a noteworthy achievement.

However, one of her proudest achievements was the introduction of education maintenance allowances for post 16-year-olds. It is something she researched and campaigned for in the Seventies. "It got a reasonable hearing, but it wasn't implemented," she says. "Coming forward 20 years and being the minister responsible for developing it was terrific. I think it is one of the biggest mistakes the Coalition Government has made to abandon it. It was a way of giving support to poor families and ensuring educational progress for their children." It is a fair bet she will take the opportunity to make that point – possibly in the House of Lord – as she contemplates an active retirement.