The death of Baroness Thatcher this week gave NEC cause to look back to a time when her government department intervened to save the College from possible closure.
In 2013, as NEC celebrates its 50th anniversary, it’s hard to imagine the College on the verge of collapse. Forty years ago however, the situation was very different.
In 1971, when NEC was just eight years old, it found itself in dire straits. An arrangement with the Open University that saw the College producing gateway courses for the OU’s degrees did not pan out as planned, and at the same time the expansion of the Cambridge University Press, on whose land NEC had its premises, meant it suddenly had to seek a new base.
To make matters worse that year also brought a nationwide postal strike, as postal workers reacted angrily to the Post Office’s refusal to meet their demands for a pay increase. For a distance learning college like NEC the consequences of such a strike were catastrophic.
This unfortunate combination of events led to a major reduction in enrolment numbers: in 1971 fewer than half as many students signed up with NEC as the previous year, and numbers continued to dwindle in 1972. Redundancies had to be made, and NEC looked in real danger of going out of business.
Seeing no way out other than to appeal for external help, NEC’s trustees travelled to Westminster in search of funding. They visited the Department of Education and Science, which at the time was presided over by Margaret Thatcher – it was her first cabinet post.
The trustees were successful in convincing the department that NEC was a unique organisation that was worth saving, and the prime-minister-to-be approved a £50,000 grant that would be given to NEC over two years.
It was the first and only time that NEC would receive general funding from central government, and ensured its survival; the College was saved, and flourished as the 1970s progressed.
Pat Gouldstone was among the staff who were made redundant in 1971 as a result of the postal strike. She was one of the first people to be brought back after the organisation secured its £50,000 lifeline from central government, and remembers the time well.
‘It was a very worrying period for NEC,’ she says. ‘The postal strike really brought it to its knees – I’d been working there since 1967 and remember how awful it was having to write everyone’s redundancy letters.
‘There was a tremendous sense of relief when we learned that Margaret Thatcher’s department had agreed to give us a grant – it literally saved us. Without that money, I have no doubt that there would be no NEC today, and that it would not have been able to provide education to the hundreds of thousands of learners it has.
‘The government recognised the value of the College and its work. And their decision has clearly been vindicated by the opportunities NEC has provided since, and still provides now, 50 years after it was founded.’