A seemingly unrelenting series of extraordinary political events constantly serves to remind us that we are not living in ordinary times.
And although no one knows what’s going to happen next, life goes on: the bread and butter work of running universities, teaching students and research continues, as does the churn of policymaking. The political chaos, though deeply unnerving, serves as a new backdrop to everyday life. And it gives a renewed urgency for universities’ public engagement activity.
A nation’s future
Few would put money on the shape of politics after the next election, but there’s probably no majority for the most extreme vision of Britain advocated by some of the right-wing Brexiteers who see leaving the EU as the way to realise their ambitions for a country with weak or non-existent liberal institutions, a small state, more nationalism and maximum freedom for international business and finance.
Despite the hostility towards universities in the press in recent years, demand for higher education continues to grow. It is clear that it will take a lot more to break the sector than what’s thrown at it by the proponents of a culture war that seek to place today’s universities and their students on the wrong side of a major historical and social divide between liberals and conservatives, Anywheres and Somewheres.
But, as I’ve been arguing since the Brexit referendum result, the sector is fighting a gunfight with water pistols. Universities measure success in academic years at the very minimum, but usually three or five year periods. But the air war is being fought every single day, in both mainstream and social media, and the sector’s enemies are gaining ground.
Universities are starting from a strong base, which is why the damage has been containable, but just carrying on as we are would see more leakage at the very least, and in the long term, we would risk taking on much heavier damage if public opinion was to start to permanently firm up in the wrong direction.
The same people attacking the sector in the popular press every day are usually the same people, or at least in league with those that want to turn Britain into the dystopian hellscape/free-market paradise [delete as politically appropriate for you] I outlined above.
Universities are not part of a big Remain conspiracy trying to subvert the will of the people, as is the charge. They are full of internationally-minded people who see benefit from Britain engaging in the world. And they suspect that the worst excesses of the ideological Brexiteers would spell disaster for the universities that inhabit these islands.
More needs to be done and it doesn’t have to involve refighting the Brexit referendum or simply defending arguments about grade inflation and senior pay (although these are not going away and do need more robust responses).
Public engagement work needs to be greatly expanded. Many universities are already working on it and the civic agenda has kick-started hundreds of positive conversations this year. I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of many of them and encouraged by a new impetus around the agenda to open up the doors more widely.
But I think the sector needs to go further and move faster to show why universities matter to people’s everyday lives. For example, I think universities should be unashamed social entrepreneurs, focused on public impact and not commercial self-interest.
Universities could adopt a campaign mentality – building partnerships and allying with activists on everything from mental health to job insecurity, from violence against women to welfare reform. They could be using the latest up-to-date campaigning techniques to genuinely engage people and politicians in those missions. We have the technology and we need to put it to better use.
Getting this right would make it harder for the critics of the sector to land their arguments and it represents an opportunity to show why universities matter in new and unexpected ways and in parts of society as yet untouched by the magic of higher education. And as powerful, wealthy and well-resourced institutions (at least in education or public sector terms), universities have an obligation to demonstrate unambiguous moral leadership of the society they are part of.
Join the campaign
A general election is imminent. And the chances are that the election carnival will come to your campus as university towns represent a slew of competitive seats.
Despite adding to the air of uncertainty, it should also be an opportunity to inspire civic engagement of students and staff, firstly in the job of making sure they can have their say in the form of voter registration. University lecture halls always serve as powerful backdrops for political debate – both the local as well as the nationally televised variety.
Campus facilities serve as brilliant photo opportunities and platforms for politicians to make announcements. And our world-class political academics and psephologists give any other part of the punditry a run for its money on the airwaves when it comes to clearly explaining to lay people what’s going on, and what might happen next.
My advice is this: let it all in. Embrace the political carnival for a few short weeks. And show the nation that universities are open, confident, up for and engaged in the debate.