The retiring Chair of the Alumni Board and Oxford alumna Baroness Shephard of Northwold on her hopes for Oxford and the implications of Brexit for UK universities
Baroness Gillian Shephard, pictured here with Lord Patten, was a government minister from 1989 to 1997
By Guy Collender
As a former Secretary of State for Education, Baroness (Gillian) Shephard is no stranger to fast-paced politics, but even she has been surprised by the speed of dramatic developments at Westminster this summer.
‘I was always sure that Leave would win the EU referendum, and was deeply apprehensive of the leadership vacuum at the top of government which would inevitably follow’, says Shephard. ‘Fortunately the whole question was rapidly settled, with the appointment of Theresa May. While the underlying anxieties remain, in Theresa we have someone with the wisdom, experience, toughness and application needed right now. Yet again, an Oxford alumna has made history. She was by far the best and most convincing candidate, and I wish her all the luck in the world.’
Regarding Brexit, Shephard – a Remain voter – is concerned about the ‘fallout’ caused by the EU referendum. ‘I think there will be a diminution of trust in the political process as a result, unless those who led the Leave campaign deliver on the promises that they made,’ she adds.
She anticipates that both the Conservative and Labour parties will take time to recover their confidence. But she also sees a silver lining, suggesting that there could be interest in more ‘coalition-type arrangements’ in future. Shephard adds: ‘If, as a result of the huge upset we are just currently seeing in British politics, there is more collaboration, I think it would be welcomed by the electorate.’
Similarly, she is not completely disheartened by the implications of Brexit for universities, although it points towards less funding and fewer opportunities for students to share experiences in Europe. Shephard is positive that scholarship, including international work beyond Europe, will ‘triumph in the end’.
The views of voters are never far from Shephard’s mind (she mentions the ‘doorstep’ repeatedly) and her intuition helps explain her success as a politician. Gillian Shephard became an MP for South West Norfolk in 1987, joined the Cabinet only five years later as Secretary of State for Employment and the first Minister for Women’s Issues, and was elevated to the House of Lords in 2005. She fondly recalls the creativity of formulating new policies and legislation, and working with colleagues, and also remembers the 18-hour days and hectic schedules that left little time for reflection. Of all her years involved in politics, she regards the years of the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition (2010–2015) as particularly rewarding and interesting. She says: ‘I greatly valued the rough edges being knocked off some of the government’s policies by the coalition partners. It was a good period.’
Our conversation takes place, appropriately, on a red leather bench in the House of Lords only days after the controversial EU referendum. With the division bell ringing in the background and parliamentarians greeting her as they hurry down the corridor, the experienced and accomplished Tory peer is very much in her element.
One of her other favourite places is undoubtedly Oxford. She credits studying French at St Hilda’s (above) as an undergraduate from 1958 to 1961, with broadening her horizons in unimaginable ways following her upbringing in rural Norfolk. Singing in choirs, attending concerts, and forging lifelong friendships, Shephard made the most of her time at the University. She says: ‘Going to Oxford transformed my life in a way that I could not have believed possible. It was everything I hoped for and much more.’
Her career developed rapidly after leaving Oxford, and not only towards national politics. She was a schoolteacher for a couple of years, became a senior schools inspector and education administrator, and also worked as a lecturer for the Workers’ Educational Association.
After marrying in 1975, she worked for Anglia Television, became a senior county councillor in Norfolk, a justice of the peace, a Mental Health Act commissioner, and chair of her local health authority. Today, her strong links with education remain. Until 2015 she was chair of the Council of the Institute of Education. Today, she is a visiting professor at King’s College London.
In 2009 Shephard became Chair of the University’s Alumni Board – a position from which she has just retired. Her time at the helm has seen the Alumni Weekend grow from strength to strength, and other alumni relations activities expand into online mentoring and professional networking events. Christine Fairchild, Director of Alumni Relations at the University, says: ‘It has been an honour to work with Baroness Shephard. She has led the Alumni Board with a steady hand and a clear and experienced eye over these last few years. Much of what we have accomplished can be attributed to the support and guidance we have received from the Board under Gillian’s thoughtful leadership. Her dedication and commitment along with her delightful sense of humour have made working with Gillian an absolute joy. We’ve all benefitted.’
Baroness Shephard commented: ‘Chairing the Alumni Board has been enjoyable and worthwhile, and has given me yet another insight into the great institution that is Oxford. To Christine Fairchild, and my successor, Nick Segal, I send best wishes and thanks for all their dedicated hard work.’
Guy Collender (Keble, 1998) is Deputy Director of Alumni Relations. The new chair of the Alumni Board is Nick Segal (St Peter’s, 1976). Alumni recently invited to join the Alumni Board are James Dancer (Keble, 1994), Baroness Jay of Paddington (Somerville, 1958), Corinne Pluchino (Christ Church, 1991), and Amanda Pullinger (Brasenose, 1984).
Images: Rob Judges, Shutterstock