Donald Trump’s election victory sparked many responses, but my favourite was by David Tollerton of the University of Exeter. He spoke for thousands of us when he wrote that, combined with the Brexit vote, this felt like a defeat for “the practice of logical, reasoned argument itself”.
But he also argued persuasively that we must fight for the right of expertise, evidence and critical argument to be heard. I agree. This is where the University and College Union’s fourth annual Cradle to Grave conference on the defence of public education comes in.
The Left has long dreamed of political change that will overthrow the established order. The irony is that while support for both Brexit and Trump has its roots in working-class anger with an economy tilted against them, it is the populist Right that has gained. The twist is that it is not just bankers who are out of fashion but knowledge too.
For my part I believe there are four things the education community should be doing now in response to what has been called post-truth politics.
First, recognise the threat to our mission. The new politics despises diversity, deplores intellectualism and represents the biggest challenge to liberal democracy since the Second World War. We can see this in Trump’s appalling, racist ban on nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries, which risks stranding hundreds of thousands of university staff and students. We can see it too in the way that EU nationals, including tens of thousands working in UK universities, are held to ransom while Theresa May’s government attempts to cobble together a negotiating strategy for Brexit.
Higher education generates billions of pounds for the economy and has a profoundly positive impact on society. Yet the current government, if it considers the sector at all, seems to view us as a nuisance or a haven for potential terrorists.
So the threat is real, and that brings me to my second point. If our response is to retreat into campus and hope this all goes away, we may find the ivory tower razed. We must seize this opportunity to insist that higher education, with all its benefits, becomes rooted in its immediate communities.
Partly this is self-interest. In both the UK and the US, there is plenty of evidence that working-class people do not see higher education either as a method for advancement or as something they should subsidise through taxation.
Let’s be honest: our admissions system is riddled with inherent bias against those from so-called non-traditional backgrounds. Even those lucky enough to attend university typically end up in one type of institution, while the privately educated inhabit another more privileged enclave. Making access to university fairer will increase political support for higher education across the spectrum.
Third, we must defend quality and oppose marketisation. The UK’s higher education bill, which would make it easier for for-profit colleges to gain a foothold, is designed to allow a Trump University to flourish here. In one blow, a global reputation built up over centuries will be put at risk. We must continue to assert our values and insist that universities are places where students are taught to think critically, rather than spoon-fed answers and guaranteed a shiny certificate in exchange for £9,000-plus a year.
Finally, if Trump’s victory and Brexit are part of the post-truth problem, universities and educators must be part of the solution. The political columnist and broadcaster Steve Richards, who is speaking at Cradle to Grave, has argued that instead of being cowed by the phrase “take back control”, which was used to such effect in the Brexit referendum, progressives should take it on and make it their own, with an empowering state at the centre of a renewed vision.
He has a point. The progressive Centre and Left across Europe appear a little like rabbits in the headlights at the moment – populists minus the popularity, you might say. Educators must respond quickly and provide a response that puts back on the agenda a fair and just society with education at its heart.
Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union. The UCU’s Cradle to Grave conference will take place in London on 11 February.