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Are universities keeping in touch with the new political zeitgeist?

A new wing of the Conservative Party is running the government, and universities are rarely out of the news. Giles Carden and Jonathan Woodhead ask if universities need to change course to keep up.
This article is more than 7 years old

Jonathan is policy adviser at Birkbeck, University of London. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Giles Carden is Chief of Staff and Director of Strategic Projects at Lancaster University.

Since the demise of the Coalition Government in 2015, universities have rarely been out of the news. This is impressive – few other UK-wide sectors have anything like this kind of constant public profile.

Since the sector educates and undertakes research in areas that cut across the private and public sector its influence is far-reaching. We are in a strong position to shape the political debate, not just in education but research, internationalisation, liberal values, and the courteous exchange of ideas.

Or are we? Recent months have made it feel like universities are not entirely in-touch with the current spirt or mood of British politics.

International students – foiled again

The former Chancellor – now ‘full-time’ newspaper editor – George Osborne clearly understood the value of science and research to the UK economy and had sympathy for universities’ desire to remove student numbers from the government’s net migration target. However, his efforts were foiled by Theresa May, with her goal to reduce net migration at all costs. This was partly due to a misunderstanding as to the benefits of student migration, and partly because reducing overseas student numbers was seen as an easy way to remedy past immigration policy failures.

Fortunately, overseas students are still coming to the UK, particularly from China, although numbers have tailed-off from the Indian sub-continent. In spite of the Home Office, the UK remains a popular place to study, and international students are ‘popular’ migrants. Research for Universities UK last year highlighted three-quarters of the public would like to see the same or increased student numbers, 81% of adults felt overseas students had a positive on the local economies and towns they live in, and 91% felt they should be able to stay and work in the UK following their period of study. On this issue at least, universities appear to be in touch with the majority of public opinion.

At the other end of the social hierarchy, universities have shown recently that they have many friendly advocates (across political parties) in the House of Lords, who have amended the Higher Education and Research Bill to exclude international students from the net migration figures. Despite implicit and explicit support from cabinet ministers as varied as Liam Fox, Philip Hammond, and Amber Rudd, the sector will have a fight on its hands when the issue returns to the Commons after Easter. How did we get to a situation where the Home Office hierarchy and the new Prime Minister are still able to block reform, at so little political cost?

Enemies in high and low places

The 2010 and 2015 election results mean that many more university towns such as Bath, Loughborough and Winchester are now represented by Conservative MPs. But that has not proven enough to win friends on the government benches. Lord Willetts, the former Universities and Science Minister, said in October last year that “universities do not have as many friends in the Commons as they like to think”. He went on to say that many Conservative ministers and MPs believe the sector’s representatives are too often “talking for their own book”. While lobbyists in mission groups or universities must fight their corner, could a more strategic approach be taken that avoids the appearance of simple self-interest?

Hostility to universities in the Conservative establishment is not hard to find, which in turn appears to increasingly believe that universities are hostile to Conservatives. The highly controversial recent report by the Adam Smith Institute argued that since the 1960s there has been a drift towards liberal-left views on campuses, and that today only 12% of academics support right-wing views compared to around half of the general public. True or not, the perception must make it harder for the sector to effectively lobby the current government.

Out of touch, out of mind

Politicians – whether in opposition or government – are primarily interested in achieving their own objectives, be that passing legislation or holding the government of the day to account (and replacing it). Politicians want and need help in fleshing out their preordained manifesto and policy objectives. There is, and always has been, space for universities and academics to provide constructive criticism rather than resistance. This doesn’t necessarily mean faking agreement with the government or abandoning core principles, but in seeking the best possible outcome while recognising that, in a democracy, politicians (for all their flaws) must govern. Though universities like arguments to be based on empirical evidence and data, politics necessarily and unavoidably means that human interest, biases, and political ideology can win over.

Reconciling this challenge was perhaps easier in the New Labour years, where for many in universities there was a closer synergy in world-view with the government. To a lesser extent, this continued into the liberal Cameron, Clegg and Osborne era. But post-Brexit Britain under Theresa May is a different prospect entirely. Universities found themselves firmly on the losing side of the biggest political event in decades. Universities are now regularly accused of being the ‘intellectual liberal elite’ and of being out of touch with wider society.

But all is not lost if the sector can more effectively connect with MPs (particularly Conservatives) in the lower house. It is also important that universities remain rooted in their communities, and in touch with a broader range of political opinions. More than ever, universities must combat the risk of political groupthink amongst staff and students and diversify their political outlook.

It will be to everyone’s benefit if universities can strengthen their influence on the public policy agenda, particularly on in the issues that directly affect them.

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