It is always intriguing to meet someone at the heart of the Establishment.
I went to Paris to interview Sir Howard Davies, who I profile in this week’s issue of the magazine, where he teaches courses on financial regulation and global banking at the Paris School of Political Science (generally known as Sciences Po) a few days each month.
But although he is an economist and ran the London School of Economics from 2003 to 2011, he has spent far more time outside the academy as a financial regulator, civil servant, ministerial adviser, private secretary to the British Ambassador to France, deputy governor of the Bank of England and now chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland. And it is precisely this outsider’s perspective that makes him such an interesting commentator on what is happening in universities.
Take the complex question of relations between academics, regulators, the government and the City. People in all four camps often have strong views on the other three, but Davies is one of the few people who can view the issue from every point of view and suggest ways in which research can be genuinely useful to bankers while also addressing the problems in the financial sector.
For academics instinctively unsympathetic to the City, he reminds us of the common interest of banks and universities in lobbying for a liberal visa regime that brings in “really smart people…to the UK for master’s programmes”.
Furthermore, as someone who has spent a good deal of time in France and developed a number of joint degrees with Sciences Po while at the LSE, Davies is particularly well placed to comment on the difference between French and British higher education, the challenges of Brexit and French attitudes towards university league tables.
With British politics in turmoil, he admits that he is “happy to have a small side bet on France at the moment”. Both politicians and university leaders would do well to take some of his insights on board.