As Britain looks towards yet another general election, it is difficult to be optimistic that we’ll have clarity about the future political settlement by Christmas.
Politics is volatile. The country is divided along cultural lines as much as on party lines – and parties are increasingly polarised to the further ends of the political spectrum. Jonathan Simons, director at Public First, believes that it is likely that Boris Johnson will return as Prime Minister, but whether as part of a coalition within a hung parliament or a majority of (at most, he says) 70 is much less predictable.
Chris Cook, formerly of Newsnight and now a partner and editor at Tortoise Media, takes a pessimistic view about the UK’s short term future. He believes that Brexit will dominate politics for the year to come, noting that July 2020 is the deadline for requesting an extension to the transition period that would be triggered by securing a withdrawal agreement with the EU.
A key concern is whether this divided electorate can return a parliament that is capable of passing future free trade deals – which will be at least as contentious as EU withdrawal. Meanwhile, a decade of austerity has simply deferred the problem of delivering effective public services – which now “need bags of money just to stay still.”
James Stewart, vice chair at KPMG, takes the view that “uncertainty is here to stay.” Rather than waiting for an endlessly-deferred moment of clarity, UK citizens will all have to get used to living our lives, growing businesses, and developing organisations in a climate of uncertainty, at least for the immediate future.
Universities can be beacons of hope in all the misery, according to Sally Mapstone, principal at the University of St Andrews. Citing cultural and scientific breakthroughs, Sally argued for the invigorating effect of university activity on a country whose mood is “a cross between Groundhog Day and Hotel California”.
Universities are hardly immune to the pessimistic mood of the moment – a straw poll of Wonkfest delegates found a significant majority for a pessimistic outlook – but Sally put her finger on a key question: could universities have a role to play in moving the country forward, in spite of uncertainty?
And what might such a future look like?
Chris Cook points to the steady erosion of expertise and capability in the civil service over the past thirty years, which is partly why the enormous complex business of Brexit has been such a challenge. He believes there is a lack of confidence in any intellectual model of how the state should be run. Ten years ago there was consensus that public service reform meant introducing private providers to compete with state providers, and setting targets and league tables to measure success. The Teaching Excellence Framework – now more regulatory instrument than vehicle for informed student choice and competition – is an example of the ways that many public (or public good) services are not amenable to competition.
Whatever kind of government we get, we will see reform of the capitalist model, says James Stewart. It’s become clear that the economic settlement has tilted too far towards private interests and the pursuit of unlimited profit. With the retrenchment of the state, there is less strong counterbalance to those interests – and communities and wider stakeholders of business are not seeing enough of a dividend. There is capital out there that is prepared to accept a capped return, according to James.
One effect of the retreat of the state, and the lack of a policy model for change, is that to some extent universities have picked up the baton on place-making and in acting as regional anchor institutions. As demonstrated by Tom Bridges and Justine Andrew on Wonkhe, there are good examples of universities playing a key role in consortia of partners across many sectors to build innovation-driven regional economies. Attention to regional collaborations and partnerships could prove fruitful in the next decade.
At the national level this could play out starkly. Another referendum on Scottish independence is on the cards. It’s conceivable, says Sally Mapstone, that Scotland will be offered the choice of “in the EU but outside the UK” or “outside the EU but within the UK.” If that were to happen, Scottish universities would not necessarily automatically support union with the UK, Sally believes. In light of funding cuts to Scottish universities, there would need to be a careful examination of which option would enable universities to continue their work unimpeded.
And can universities influence the future political settlement if and when it emerges? Only if they work harder to do so, according to Jonathan Simons. Backbench MPs, he says, unless they are one of the handful of those directly engaged in science and research policy, are “politely sceptical” about whether universities are driving forward benefits for the country. Though they may believe in HE in the abstract, they are swayed by the endless stories of assaults on freedom of speech at universities. Chris Cook believes that universities should accept that they are on one side of the cultural divide and be prepared to make the case for a liberal future. Better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all.