A change may do you good

A different environment can do wonders for a person; might universities feel a similar refreshment when the UK’s political landscape settles down again?

May 30, 2019
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Source: Alamy

Few things seem certain in the UK’s quicksilver politics, but despite the tumult of recent weeks, the big questions hanging over the country’s higher education sector remain unchanged.

It has been clear for some time that Theresa May would not last as prime minister and that – despite seemingly risible talk of the review of post-18 education in England offering her a chance to create a “legacy” – it will be her successor who decides how and whether the Augar review is implemented.

As May’s review (and it’s worth saying that higher education was a quiet obsession of hers in a number of ways, none of them good), it could prove too toxic, or of little interest, to a new leader.

But let’s not forget its genesis in the last general election, and the fear among Tories that they were offering nothing to young people while Labour promised the earth.

And there is nothing fantastical about the widespread dissatisfaction with the levels of debt heaped on graduates, or the part this has played in an undeserved decline in universities’ standing in the public mind. So it is probably best to wait and see how the recommendations are treated by the next occupant of No 10 rather than try to read the runes.

Of even greater significance to universities, along with everyone else, is how a new prime minister will change tack on the delivery or otherwise of Brexit.

While a hard-line Leave proponent such as Boris Johnson would make the unspeakable dangers of a no-deal Brexit more likely, it is also probable that May’s departure will sweep much of her personal antagonism to academic talent flows out of No 10.

For example, Johnson – a former shadow higher education minister – has spoken about the importance of international students in the past.

As mayor of London, he talked of the capital being a “cyclotron” for attracting global talent, thanks to its universities, and he might be expected to take the same view of the country.

His brother Jo, a former HE minister himself, has forged impressive cross-party support for an amendment to the immigration bill improving post-study work opportunities, again suggesting that May’s personal animus on this issue has blocked sensible progress that can now be resumed.

At an event in Westminster last week, organised by Times Higher Education and Huawei, the special scholarly links between Britain and the rest of Europe were made clear by speaker after speaker.

Maggie Dallman, vice-president (international) and professor of immunology at Imperial College London, talked about her own lab, in which she is the only Brit.

Among her colleagues is a French scientist who has worked with her for more than 20 years and is now considering whether they might have to leave, she said.

Such stories remind us of the grave danger in which UK higher education finds itself – the ongoing uncertainty is insidious. Indeed, the only certainty for universities, as the eminent computer scientist Dame Wendy Hall put it at the same event, is that “everything is changing and nothing will be the same again”.

What has been clear throughout the Brexit process is that universities have been an afterthought in the political machinations. But it’s equally clear that they will be crucial to post-Brexit prosperity.

Is this the silver lining: that Britain will wake up to the significance of our world-class universities?

Perhaps.

With so many imponderables, and political events moving too fast for the print deadline for this column, the sensible thing would be to write about something else entirely.

So let’s talk about holidays instead: like May herself, you probably need one, and in our cover story this week we ask six scholars to give their personal guide to a favourite destination. Do dive in.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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