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A One Nation ethos could navigate universities through the current political turmoil

Richard Brabner has a provocative new paper for HEPI arguing that universities need to commit to change to cool the HE market, overcome the culture wars, and reconnect with their communities
This article is more than 2 years old

Richard Brabner is executive chair of the UPP Foundation

Are we in a new political era? That’s a question pundits are asking as the government grapples with crisis after crisis and the polls drift towards the opposition.

My view is that we are entering a new era. But it isn’t about the ups and downs of partisan politics. Instead, the impact of globalisation, the rise of populism and the apparent failures of western governments since the turn of the millennium has led us to living through “in-between times”, in the words of Jonathan Grant in The New Power University.

The in-between times are having a profound impact on higher education. There has been a shift amongst some centre-right policymakers, who – like the left – are sceptical of liberal markets, but unlike the left are also increasingly sceptical of some progressive cultural orthodoxies.

These policy makers are starting to outline “post-liberal” alternatives which rebalance policy away from individualism and freedom towards community and control.

Post-liberals challenge universities in two ways:

  • The market challenge They believe the higher education system incentivises the wrong behaviour. They think there has been too much focus on expanding three-year degrees and too much growth of courses which provide little economic return. They link the expansion of higher education with low productivity and claim that the expensive residential model transfers skills from towns to metropolitan cities.
  • The cultural challenge Universities have found themselves at the centre of a debate about identity and belonging. Many believe universities are not only dominated by liberal-left world views but are also increasingly intolerant of alternative perspectives.

Overall, I believe this view is often binary, lacking in nuance and divorced from the attitudes and behaviours of learners. Yet at its heart there’s a truth. We have a university sector which benefits, and is valued more by, the professional classes than those from working-class backgrounds. It is this factor which is driving much of the scepticism of universities and is something we must change.

One Nation University, my new policy paper for HEPI (written in a personal capacity) isn’t a rebuttal to the post-liberals. Instead, if offers a balanced alternative and is an attempt to bridge the gap between them and the higher education sector, which continues to do so much good.

My vision is to adopt the political idea of One Nation – a notion based on supporting all parts of society, healing division and building community. The paper includes a raft of policy ideas to make this a reality, but it can essentially be boiled down to three key arguments.

Balancing choice and place – a fair market for the common good

As John Kay and Mervyn King set out in their recent book Radical Uncertainty governments and individuals need to adopt strategies that are robust to alternative futures and resilient to unpredictable events. Within the context Kay and King set out it is entirely rational for school leavers to go to university in record numbers, because instead of being fixated on short-term salary returns, a university degree offers greater flexibility and options as their lives develop and the labour market evolves.

But there are two key issues with how the current system works. The first is cost. When the current fees system was put in place, the proportion of the student loan projected to be subsidised by the taxpayer was around 30 per cent. It is now well over 50 per cent.

When you think about the costs associated with the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, and other public spending pressures to do with ageing, climate, security, levelling up and so on, the RAB charge on student loans seems unsustainable. Therefore, government will have a choice: cut student numbers, cut fees or increase repayment. The latter is the least-worst option, particularly when we consider fairness for future students.

The second is how the market interacts with place. The funding regime and the removal of the student number cap has increased the freedom and choice of the 18 year old mobile student but has constrained the freedom and choice of less mobile students who typically need to attend their local institution. This manifests in various ways and requires active government to remove the sharper edges of the market to ensure higher education can thrive across the country.

Overcoming the culture wars

The culture wars debate has too often been dominated by contrarians on one side exaggerating the issue and focusing on relatively trivial things, and on the other side a sector which doesn’t think there is a problem. Both sides seem to reinforce each other’s position.

I think it is clear there is an issue, but it’s not about the latest event from an Oxford common room. Support for universities is weaker among older people, those who voted Leave and the working classes. The culture wars do not fully explain this but there is a problem with how a left of centre monoculture on campus (some may disagree with this assertion, but I think it is pretty accurate if you look at the evidence) impacts how universities engage with people who do not share the sector’s dominant values, how universities deal with cultural conflict on campus, and how they ensure thought diversity is protected.

The government’s response to this debate is the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. There is an important debate being had on the merits of legislation. But while state action can hinder or help free speech, it is what universities as autonomous institutions and what individual staff and students do as responsible citizens, that really matters in shaping behaviour and culture on campus. Ultimately, we need more civility.

The paper calls for universities to recognise the issue and policymakers and commentators on the right to work with the sector to address this. One idea is to establish a Heterodox Academy for England, which would support best practice and offer regular guidance to enable pluralism.

Revitalising community on and off campus

Study is the purpose of attending university, but through experiencing lots of different things a student finds out who they are, what they want to be and how they want to grow. This immersive community experience helps to build a sense of belonging among the student population and is critical to their wellbeing and future success.

But while participation in an immersive community-led student experience is important to the individual and wider society, participation is unequal – with working class students less likely to engage. And when we look at it through the lens of student loneliness and social capital, we see similar gaps which need to be filled. Causation is difficult to untangle, but I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Post-liberal commentators often talk about the importance of community, but rarely consider the potential for an expanded university sector to be at the heart of this. By focusing on community renewal on and off campus we can produce a win-win for local communities and individual students alike.

To do this the paper calls on universities to embed it through the curriculum, and for government and the sector to establish a national Student Community Service programme, which would have a particular focus on ensuring disadvantaged students participate.

Britain’s burgeoning higher education institutions are failing to fulfil the needs of employers, graduates or wider society. One in three graduates end up on a non-graduate job, and there are universities where graduate earnings are no higher than non-graduates. At the same time, the relative decline of technical and vocational options for young people who do not go to university has meant there are limited opportunities at age 18 and beyond, as adults find themselves without the skills required in a fast-paced changing world of work.

These are not the words of a centre-right critic but Claire Ainsley’s, in The New Working Class. Formerly executive director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Ainsley is now Keir Starmer’s executive director of policy.

This is a reminder that whatever happens in Westminster, this period of change and challenge is not going away. Before a new era is settled, universities and policymakers have choices to make. Do we stick with the status quo and continue to be valued by only some of the country? Or can we find a better way to demonstrate our worth to all in society?

One response to “A One Nation ethos could navigate universities through the current political turmoil

  1. An excellent blog Richard. I couldn’t agree more about the need for civility within acdemic and political discourse.

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