Skip to main content

Baroness Sharp of Guilford

(Elected 2005)


Baroness Sharp of Guildford is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for further education, higher education and skills in the House of Lords. A vocal campaigner on the needs of part-time students, she helped secure concessions from the Government that ensured part-time students were not forgotten in the higher education bill.

‘My admiration for Birkbeck and its students stems from the fact that studying for a degree part-time, after a full day’s work, is a tough way to do it,’ she says.

‘I realised this when I was teaching at LSE in the 1960s, and 40 years on, it remains the tough way but also the sensible way of seeking to widen participation and open the doors to lifelong learning.’

‘It was because the Government’s white paper on higher education of 2003 lacked this vision and made not even one mention of the part-time route to degrees that I took up the cudgels on behalf of part-timers. To add insult to injury, the Government also proposed a system of up-front loans to pay the fees of full-timers, loans which were not available to part-timers.

‘Together with colleagues in the House of Lords, where Birkbeck has many friends, we were able to soften the pill a little, but we continue to battle against this overt discrimination and try to instil into ministers the need for a far more flexible approach to higher education which embraces part-time education rather than leaves it on the side-lines, if they are to realise their ambitions on widening participation.’

After graduating with a BA Economics at Newnham College, Cambridge in 1960, Baroness Sharp launched a career in academia as a lecturer at LSE in 1964, where she spent 15 years in the Science Policy Research Unit. She served as a research fellow at Sussex University between 1981 and 1999, and from 1992 to 1999 she was Director of the Economic and Social Research Council, which funds research and training in social and economic issues.

Baroness Sharp unsuccessfully contested the Guildford constituency for the now defunct SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 and 1987, also fighting the same seat in 1992 and 1997 for the Liberal Democrats. In 1998 she was appointed to the Lords.

Her published work includes The State, the Enterprise and the Individual (1974) and Technology Policy in the European Union (1998), plus numerous articles and chapters on science and technology policy.


Master, Distinguished Governors, Graduates and Guests.

Margaret Sharp was educated at Pate’s Girls Grammar School in Cheltenham and Tonbridge Girls’ Grammar School, where I suspect she was not contemporary with fellow alumni Jo Brand or Virginia Wade, before going up to Newnham College, Cambridge to read economics. After leaving Cambridge with a first-class degree, she shone brightly enough in the fiendish Civil Service fast-track exams to be appointed to the Board of Trade. There, her incandescence was marginally dimmed by the arrival of young children. The Civil Service was less tolerant of part-time staff in those days, and so she was on the alert for a post that would allow her to combine the roles of parent and professional. She found it in a teaching position at the London School of Economics which she joined in 1964. She has said that it was the challenge of combining career and childcare that has made her acutely aware ever since of the challenges and achievements of part-time students. In 1973, she left the UK with her husband and children for the  United States, where she was to remain for four years. While she was there, she became deeply absorbed in emerging technologies, especially in electronics and biotechnology, and the question of their social impact.

On her return in 1977, she joined the National Economic Development Agency. She compiled a long report that recommended ways of using Britain’s impending oil and gas revenues to help move Britain from an economy based on old-style heavy industrial production to one based on the new electronic and biotechnological industries that were busily in development across the world. Her report recommended setting aside the oil windfall (if you’ll pardon the somewhat messy idea this conjures up) to spend on education and skills development for the baby boomers who were just starting to join the job market, thereby striking a keynote that was to recur in her life and writings.

But the date of the report’s appearance – 1979 - was inauspicious. Margaret Thatcher’s incoming Conservative government changed the complexion of British politics, and ensured that this report was never published or acted on. By the early 1980s, Margaret Sharp had also grown dissatisfied with many aspects of the Labour party of which she had up to that point been a supporter, and she became one of the earliest adherents of the Social Democratic Party formed by Roy Jenkins and the other members of the Gang of Four. She was selected to contest the seemingly unassailable Conservative majority of 20,000 in the constitutnecy of Guildford in the 1983 election, though was unsuccessful.  (There were others who failed to make a dent in the Conservative majority in these years of post-Falkland effervescence, one Anthony Blair making an extremely unimpressive showing in Beaconsfield).

By now, she had found a new academic home in the University of Sussex. In 1984, she moved to the Science Policy Research Unit, where she became Research Fellow and later Senior Research Fellow, which spoke to her twin interests in economics and science and technology. The first topic to which she turned her attention was biotechnology. A series of discussions and interviews with scientists, businesspeople and government officials across the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands resulted in 1985 in a searching report entitled The New Biotechnology: European Governments in Search of a Strategy. The report explores issues that were close to her heart then as now, namely how an emergent science, that is, as she puts it ‘half in and half out of the laboratory’ is carried across into commercial use and how governments can accelerate or inhibit this process

In the same year, she edited a volume called Europe and the New Technologies, the focus of which is the dynamics of change in technological process. Once again she was able to put to use her formidable expertise on both sides of the equation she is examining – both in the details of scientific investigation and technical process, and in the economic and governmental processes  that are necessary for such knowledge to find specific applications. This intellectual ambidexterity gives her analysis an unusual lucidity and large-mindedness. While insisting that it is the use that is made of scientific knowledge that determines its meaning, she never loses sight of the fact that, as she puts it ‘a science-based activity depends upon a core of excellence in science itself’.

These were to be the first in a series of influential interventions she made in matters of science policy. She became interested in the chemical industry and co-authored a report on this subject in 1991, followed in 1993 by another on the relations between the chemical industry and biotechnology. A equally strong concern during her work in 1980s was with the growing European dimension of science, and the necessity to develop forms of network and collaboration across Europe as national companies have given way to ever larger multinational companies, and European nations have shifted towards the new, knowledge-based economy. She produced a monograph on European Technological Collaboration in 1987, and, in 1991, co-edited an important book entitled Technology and the Future of Europe: Global Competition and the Environment. She urged and applauded cross-national collaborations, seeing particular value in the transfer of knowledge and skills and the enhancement of education and training for young scientists they brought.

In 1992, she became director of the newly-established Centre for Science, Technology, Energy and Environment Policy at the University of Sussex, the aim of which, over the five years of its operation, was to focus research on the principal currents in science and technology, especially those which were likely to have major impacts on the organisation of economies and societies. It sought to inform Government and other bodies of the most important policy changes that were likely to be required to respond to new technologies. While at Sussex, she was invited to join the campaign group Save British Science, to add her expertise and authority as a social scientist to their numbers. It was later to become the Campaign for Science and Engineering. She has continued to support the work of this group for many years.

Meanwhile, in the background, there was the gnawing problem of how to wrest that Guildford constituency from the Conservatives. She fought three more elections for the SDP and subsequently for the Liberal Democrats, in 1987, 1992 and 1997, each time hewing a little deeper into the trunk of the 20,000 Conservative majority. By the time the 2001 election came round the tree duly fell to earth, though this time to Sue Doughty, who finally brought to an end the Conservative grip on Guildford that had been exercised since the removal of the Liberal William Cowan in 1910.

Her unusual spread of skills and accomplishments made her an extremely valuable intellectual force in forming the policies and political identity of the new party. Her work for the party has included serving on the Liberal Democrats Policy Committee, from 1992, acting as Vice Chair from 1994-95, and was the Chair of the Economic Policy Working Group, 1993-95.

In 1998, she was elevated to the peerage, taking the title Baroness Sharp of Guildford, and began her active work in the House of Lords, as spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats on education, science and technology. Baroness Sharp’s interventions have never failed to sharpen the debate and raise the tone.

In response to the Government’s White Paper on Education, she recently conducted a review leading to the policy paper Quality, Diversity and Choice. This recommended a much more flexible model of funding and teaching in higher education, which recognised that in the future, most students would study incrementally and in modular fashion, rather than in the once-and-for-all educational experience on which current educational policy is based. It also proposed to provide the necessary extra funding for universities, not through student contributions (in effect a tax on students), but through a progressive income tax. As she was fond of observing, young graduates at the poorer end of the earning bracket were in effect being asked to pay extra income tax at a rate of around 9%.

She has argued piquantly that those who have had their education paid for by previous generations through a generous regime of free tuition fees and maintenance grants should be prepared themselves to contribute to the education of new generations.

But the service for which we will owe her our greatest debt was in championing the cause of part-time students in the House of Lords. Remembering her own experience combining work and parenthood as a part-time lecturer, she was scandalised that the Government’s proposals for education should have been so entirely, discriminatingly blind to the needs and contributions of part-time students. On the one hand, part-time institutions like Birkbeck would be denied the extra income promised in the form of the top-up fees that full-time students could be charged. On the other, part-time students themselves were to be denied access to loans and deferred payment of fees. Baroness Sharp has been at the forefront of a continuing campaign that refused to allow the Government to ignore this anomaly – or, as it might less politely be termed, outrage. Her mixture of tenacity and formidable grasp of detail have helped secure a partial turning of the tide.

We are grateful, as part-time students across the country must be grateful, to have found such a champion, and are glad for the opportunity to salute so many years of distinguished service to academic and public life. It gives me great pleasure to welcome her now, as Fellow of Birkbeck.