Dispatches from Day One of The Festival of Higher Education

The Festival of Higher Education kicked off this morning amongst the art deco splendour of the University of London’s Senate House.

Alistair Jarvis is Pro Vice Chancellor (Partnerships and Governance) at the University of London.

The festival opened with a topical discussion on the question ‘What do the UK’s places want from their universities?’. An expert panel of Katy Shaw (Northumbria University); Wendy Thomson (University of London); Rachel Wolf (Public First) and Andy Westwood (the University of Manchester) shared examples of how universities can be powerful place-makers and challenged universities to show their civic value, using their ideas, creativity, knowledge and resources to drive positive change in their local communities.

The panel argued that the civic mission of universities is vital, morally, economically, and politically. While recognising the positive local impact universities have through their teaching and research, the panel highlighted the need for universities to do more to reach out to people locally that have very limited interaction with higher education. Perhaps a truly successful civic university is one where local families with no experience of university education see the value of their local university as much as those who have studied there.

Next up, on the main stage, I interviewed the brilliant Sunder Katwala (British Future) who spoke about identity, immigration, patriotism, and how to end the culture wars – drawing from his excellent new book How to Be a Patriot: Why love of country can end our very British culture war which offers a new way of understanding our collective identity in a country wracked by division – it is a rousing story of lives lived together, patriotism and shared values. It also provides advice on how we can end the culture wars.

His lucid answers provided a “how to” guide to ending the culture wars including sage advice on the role universities can play in building an inclusive society. The conversation ranged across challenging issues of free speech, hate speech, safe spaces, racism to pride in country and the layers of national identity. The audience came alive with pertinent questions probing some of the challenging day-to-day issues universities face as they navigate the culture wars, often with hindrance rather than help from government. I also challenged Sunder to make a few political predictions… so…. the next General Election will take place on Thursday 12 December, and Keir Starmer will become the new Prime Minister; however a majority Labour government may not be the forgone conclusion that many pundits have predicted.

Later on the main stage delegates heard a powerful defence of the value of the arts and humanities from author, critic and broadcaster Bonnie Greer and the need for government investment. Sarah Churchwell (University of London) expertly interviewed Bonnie, hearing strong opinions on the future of arts and humanities and the need to make them accessible, inclusive and properly funded. The conversation explored the usefulness of humanities degrees, the important role of universities, museums and research in promoting the value of the humanities and making them accessible to the wider UK public.

On the debate stage I joined Dewi Knight (Policywise), Wendy Alexander (University of Dundee) and Megan Fearon (Open University) to share insights on the topic of influencing government policy across the UK. The expert panel had a lively debate which probed the challenges universities can face in gaining political traction with an often hostile media and with a government seemingly holding many other policy priorities well ahead of universities.

The panel explored the nuances of influencing across the devolved nations of the UK and the need to offer ideas and solutions to the issues that the government wants to solve, not just opposition to governments’ policy priorities. The panel argued for the importance of influencing the influencers – civil servants, political and policy advisers, think tanks, local mayors, business groups, public sector leaders – building alliances beyond parliament. The need to influence the implementation was mentioned – the implementation of policy often just as important, arguably more so, than the drafting of the original policy. Advice was shared on how universities should approach the next General Election and how to navigate the risks of political divisions and culture wars.

At the end of day one, guests continued the lively debate across such a broad range of topical issues with drinks and conversation free-flowing… discussions that I suspect will go on long into the night.

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