Readers of Wonkhe, an astute bunch, are fully aware of the changing dynamics of public debate. We have entered into an era of echo chambers, decaying civility and hostility driven by social media, click bait and hyper partisan commentary. Institutions that form our public and civic sphere are inevitably caught up in this environment.
None more so than universities and those that lead them. Attacking universities is now the new normal. From the tabloid press and polemical commentators on the right, universities are called madrassas of the left. Criticised for weakening free speech. For being the Isle of Remain. From the left, universities are condemned for being elitist and out of touch. For being in the throes of neoliberal managerialism.
It is not just the level of attacks that has been astonishing. It is the anger. The vitriol. The personal. 12 months ago we had all just experienced the summer of discontent. Weekly attacks on our universities about VC pay, value for money and free speech. But this year the changing nature of public discourse is best characterised by a dispute within the sector. It only takes a cursory glance of the #nocapitulation feed or the various ‘satirical’ accounts on twitter to see that the sector isn’t immune from the polarised and damaging rhetoric that permeates public debate today.
How people really feel
With the negative commentary surrounding higher education we might have thought that the public perception of universities would be low. In fact, there is very little evidence that this is the case. In the autumn UUK and Britain Thinks will be publishing a major piece of opinion work on the public’s view of universities. The headline finding, which was presented to this year’s CASE Europe conference, shows that 48% of the public have a positive view of the sector and just 9% have a negative view. This correlates to the findings of the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission which conducted a poll of 10 cities in March. The Commission asked a slightly different question – whether respondents were proud of their local universities. An average of 58% said they were “proud” of their local universities, and just 7% said they were “not proud”.
Whilst this is a salutary reminder that few media narratives gain real traction with the public, there is a real challenge to the sector in these findings. One that is much more significant than a bit of a bashing in the press. And that’s apathy.
In the UUK poll 31% were ‘net neutral’ (and 13% ‘didn’t know’). A pessimistic reading of the UUK findings would conclude that less than half of the population really care about our universities. The Commission’s poll also found big variations – geographically and between classes. This showed up in its focus groups too: better educated, civically involved people were very positive. For others, universities were at best an irrelevance, at worst a nuisance.
A job to do
These findings clearly demonstrate to the entire sector that we must do much more to convince the public of the value of universities. This is in part a communications challenge. During the Commission’s evidence gathering we have seen outstanding local civic engagement from the sector, yet a great deal of reticence in communicating the impact of this to local communities. The UUK polling also shows that when the public simply know what universities do, there is a sharp increase in the numbers who have a positive view of the sector.
UUK is using the findings to develop a public awareness campaign to be launched later this year, aimed at shifting more of the ‘neutrals’ into the ‘positive’ camp. This is a very good step forward, yet the challenge of apathy is wider than simply a communications issue. Paradoxically it is also fair to say that whilst we do not communicate our successes well, in some other cases the sector’s rhetoric is stronger than its substance. And for too long the sector has overly relied on economic impact reports to demonstrate its value. It may be a crude and unfair interpretation to say that many of these reports say universities are great because they exist, but is it all that far from the truth?
Engaging our communities and demonstrating our value may sound like a banal cliché. Who could argue against that? But it makes it no less true or important. For the sector to thrive, we need the public’s support. It is in our enlightened self-interest to increase the numbers of people who have a positive view of our universities, who then go on to become the sector’s vocal champions. Yes, this will encourage more people to apply to university. It may mean we have a better relationship with key local stakeholders, such as planning committees. But crucially it also protects us from the politician. The politician who needs the backing of their constituents. Whilst it might be an uphill struggle to get the same level of support that universal services in the public sector, such as the NHS and schools receive, it shouldn’t stop us from trying.
In a period where public debate is so polarised, the only way we can counter some of the negative attacks from politicians and the press is to speak to our communities directly. Only by convincing the public that the negative narratives are wrong, can we stop the regular attacks on our sector.