A bit of honesty with the new minister wouldn’t go amiss

It's easy to say "yes, minister, we can fix all of that". But should we lie like this? Andrew McRae on learning to ignore university critics

Tackling another week’s worth of attacks on universities feels a bit like reading one of those books for toddlers.

“That’s not my university, Julian Brazier; my university is not a left-wing indoctrination camp.” “That’s not my university, Owen Jones; my university is not a neo-liberal corporation.” But maybe this is not about my university at all. Maybe it’s not about any of our universities.

The “university” in public discourse is much discussed, with a fury that seems only to escalate with the commentator’s distance from the realities of higher education. It occupies a discursive space in which rival views of ideal societies are tested. Hence the unreal isolation of higher education in much of this discourse, as though all the nation’s problems can be fixed here. Let’s look at social inclusion without worrying about early-years education; let’s fret about free speech without bothering about media ownership.

The logic of such arguments goes a bit like this. I assert that a phenomenon exists and is damaging the entire nation. I identify this phenomenon within universities. And then I claim that if the phenomenon is fixed in universities we can change the country. It’s a form of utopian thinking: imagine universities as an island and the commentator as a benevolent dictator.

At that point it’s easy enough to believe that universities can fix all sorts of things: free speech, racism, the youth mental health crisis, social inequality. For Brazier, by closing down some universities we might even be able to fix the unfortunate tendency for well-educated people to assess the evidence and choose not to vote Conservative.

Benevolent utopias

Setting aside for a moment what tends to happen in utopias (which is rarely good), let alone what invariably happens to benevolent dictators (which is also pretty grim), where does this leave those of us working in universities? Each assault seems to demand a response and every column is doubtless laden with untruths, but how should a university leader – indeed anyone involved with universities – respond?

In the seventeenth century there was a brief fashion for animadversion, a form in which an antagonist’s text was cut into pieces and interspersed with critical comments. It was a neat way to assert intellectual control over an antagonist. Then came the letter to The Times, weighted with the authority of titled signatories. Now we have social media, with its illusion of free exchange but its unending spirals of whataboutery.

It is genuinely hard to find spaces for dispassionate assessment of evidence, appreciation of the complex systems within which universities operate, and maybe even respect for those with experience and expertise. Given that this is precisely how we operate within universities, that’s a particularly maddening paradox.

But what would be the consequences of accepting that there’s actually not much we can do? If people are determined to lay their utopian fantasies upon their idea of a university, there really may not be much point outlining their errors. The university, after all, is not their main concern; it’s just a discursive space in which to take their ideology for a walk. In this context maybe the best thing for universities to do is just get on with stuff. And, like, all the good stuff we do: research, education, student support, aspiration-raising, community engagement, and so forth. We’re not going to be able to stop the attacks, because they are about so much more than us.

No retreat

This is not to say we retreat to another idea of insularity, rather that we adhere to the principles on which academic work rests. We ask: what’s your evidence for that? And we demonstrate the place of universities within wider structures (e.g. funding models, visa laws, primary and secondary education systems), and entrenched social problems (e.g. inequality, post-Brexit racial tensions, underfunded mental health services). The problems our critics pin to universities are rarely, if ever, specific to universities.

Maybe we even go on strike. While I despise the zealots standing outside universities and interpreting our strikes for their own ideological ends, and suspect the UCU of some utopian thinking and dodgy data of its own, I respect colleagues striking in good faith for fine causes. We will take a beating in the public sphere during the strike, but this too will be coloured by ideology. As Jones has demonstrated, much of what we read about the strike will not much be concerned with universities at all.

I suspect that recent higher education ministers have understood this point about attacks on universities. They found scraps to toss to the gallery – free speech, value for money, Augar – but basically let us get on with being bloody good. Our new minister, Michelle Donelan, has apparently distinguished her time in parliament by raising questions about vice-chancellors’ “outrageous” pay and unconditional offers somehow “closing doors”. So far, so simplistic.

It will be easy enough to say “yes, minister, we can fix all of that”. It’s what she will want to hear, and it’s what VCs and the OfS like to say. But honesty, about the complexity of most problems and the position of universities within the nation, may produce better policy.

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