Our debates should be purposeful, not point-scoring

The first editorial commission I ever received from Mark Leach for his (then) new blog about higher education policy was to “write something about power and knowledge in higher education”. I said I’d get round to it eventually.

Eight years later, taking the reins as Wonkhe’s editor, I have been naturally thinking a great deal about the current status of the higher education policy debate and Wonkhe’s role in creating the conditions for the debate to flourish.

Wonkhe has evolved over the years to provide, daily high-quality information and analysis that many in the sector depend on, and to be a platform for debate, especially through bringing to light the new and unheard voices in higher education.

Wonkhe’s community includes academics, higher education professionals, policymakers, student representatives and those who work in partnership with universities. We draw on the best traditions of higher education to ask difficult questions and commit to the open exchange of views in pursuit of fresh understanding.

Throughout my own education, debate meant cocky, confident people, nit-picking at each other’s arguments in a panelled room. The aim was not to improve understanding or develop views through the exchange of ideas, but merely to win.

In academia, the scientific method offers a model in which evidence-based assertions may be freely challenged, and fresh evidence brought to light. But academic standards of knowledge production do not always translate into public discourse.

Social media exposes the dark side of public debate, in which people are frequently subject to attack and abuse simply for holding a view. It is now easier than it has ever been for anyone with an internet connection to publish, unburdened by facts, evidence or concern for consequences. No wonder then that malevolent forces have found it that much easier to spread fake news. But it is also much easier for those people who might otherwise struggle for a hearing in conventional media to put their views out into the world and influence a debate.

In our view, diverse voices make better policy. Academic knowledge remains the gold standard, and our commitment to assessing and evaluating the evidence will remain unwavering. But if we set a condition of academic-level expertise for every interlocutor not only would we radically restrict who gets to speak but we would lose valuable insight from the debate.

Claiming knowledge is an audacious act, and not one that we all automatically feel entitled to. For many – because of gender, ethnicity, disability, job role, or maybe the type of institution we work for – our status in higher education feels precarious. We work in higher education because a knowledge-rich environment inspires us, but we do not always believe that the knowledge we have amassed ourselves is worth something or can be made meaningful to a wider audience. Still less that it might actually contribute to policy change.

Engaging with Wonkhe means choosing to believe that debate means more than showing off and point-scoring.

It means being part of a community of people who care about higher education, want it to succeed and want it to be as good as it can be.

It means the possibility of discovering fresh perspectives on issues you face in your working life and shaping your own views in response.

And it should mean believing that it is worth developing and sharing ideas, because those ideas could actually change things, specifically; policy, people and politics.

If that sounds like the sort of thing you might enjoy, get writing.

debbie@wonkhe.com

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