Baroness Margaret Sharp is an Honorary Doctor of Applied Sciences at LSBU. A distinguished academic and passionate campaigner on issues including tuition fees and vocational education, she spent a significant part of her career at University of Sussex, supporting the early development of biotechnology and encouraging investment in science.
"Even as a child, I was aware of the gap between private schools and the state system. I was one of four children, and there was no question of us going to a fee-paying school. But it was clear to me that those that were privately educated were more accepted socially in the town where we lived. It was that atmosphere of divisiveness I didn’t like. I was very proud of the education I received in state schools, and of winning a place at Newnham College, Cambridge, to study economics.
"Living as expats in the US, the expectation was definitely that we would send our children to private school. Instead, I got involved in reforming and reorganising our local state schools, which were under-resourced and under-attended. We came up with a way to pool resources, and found people who would teach subjects like art and music for a very small fee. It was all very ad hoc, very collaborative – but it worked. I’d been involved in the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education in the UK and I was amazed by how quickly you could make things happen in the US. That project went on to win a Rockefeller Prize for Innovation in Arts Education.
"I’d always felt a certain sympathy with the Labour Party. But when we came back from Washington DC in 1976, the party had very much swung to the left. It was the era of Tony Benn, with the trades unions in the ascendant. At the same time, the Conservatives were moving to the right. I no longer felt my centrist views were represented. When the SDP was formed, and later the Liberal Democrats, it felt like a comfortable fit for me. I ended up standing four times as candidate for Guildford. I didn’t get elected, but I did succeed in significantly reducing the Conservative majority.
"With hindsight, I’m happy to have ended up in the Lords rather than the Commons. Of course, no one likes to lose! But it would have been very hard to combine being a good constituency MP with being a front bench spokesperson and, as a woman, you need a very thick skin to survive in the Commons. In many ways too, despite the fact that it’s unelected, I think the Lords is more democratic: anyone can propose and argue for an amendment, and the members are freer to vote as their conscience dictates, rather than in accordance with what the Whips tell them. Also, without constituency work, you’re free to focus on specific issues that concern you – in my case, part-time, further and adult education – which gives you a chance to achieve worthwhile reforms.
"My decision to retire was partly personal, and partly a matter of principle. Sitting in the Lords is stimulating but time-consuming, and can be very tiring – it often means staying on until 9 or 10 at night. It’s only in the past few years that members have been able to retire from the Lords. My husband Tom is a little older than me, and I felt we should seize the opportunity to spend more time together. Also, as a long time advocate for reform of the Lords, including a fixed term of 15 years, I felt I should practice what I was preaching.
"In some ways I am sad to be missing out on the debates about Brexit. I would have been arguing very strongly for a deal that allows us to retain the strongest possible ties with Europe. Having grown up in the aftermath of a war that was triggered largely by nationalist feelings getting out of control, I am naturally in favour of anything that makes it easier for countries to co-operate and work together. I fear too for the future of research in this country: at Sussex University in the 1980s, I wrote a great deal about the early development of the European science and technology programmes. I don’t know if people realise just what an important role EU collaboration and funding has played in helping us to achieve such a high standard of research in this country.
"My time at Cambridge was very much shaped by the debates between the Keynesians and the neoclassicists. My tutor, Joan Robinson, was a disciple of Keynes and one of the greats. I was also lucky enough to be taught by Robin Matthews. I still believe that austerity is its own worst enemy and that, if we want the economy to grow, we should invest more in infrastructure, transport and, most important of all, in education.
"In the early 1980s I worked for the National Economic Development Office and learned how important skills training was for productivity growth. In the 35 years since then, we’ve made little progress in tackling the skills gaps in this country. I blame the constant churn of policy: there has been a proliferation of different initiatives, but nothing is ever given the chance to mature. Culturally, too, there are barriers. Vocational training is still seen as second best to the traditional academic route. Then there is the deep-seated unwillingness on the part of businesses to invest in and prioritise R&D and training, preferring instead to focus on generating returns for shareholders. We need to take a longer term view.
"It was a privilege to sit in the Lords, and to enjoy such companionship and mental stimulus. But I must say I am also very much enjoying having more time, although I’ve found I’m rather good at frittering it away! Tom and I are going to plays and concerts together, and travelling both at home and overseas, and we both attend courses at U3A. We garden a lot together – as a child, I always wanted to be a Land Girl, and now I finally have the opportunity to get my hands in the soil."