Universities’ new mission: reconnect

With expertise being vilified, institutions must re-establish their relevance to ‘real people’. Fortunately, they are ideally placed to do so

July 7, 2016
Businesspeople discussing how to reconnect
Source: iStock

“Trust me, I don’t have a doctorate.” As maxims go, it may not be one for the departmental pinboard. But these are worrying times for those who believe in evidence, facts and “expertise”.

Unfortunately, that counts out a significant chunk of Britons, if we’re to believe Michael Gove, the man who knifed Boris Johnson in his bid to be the next prime minister.

“People in this country have had enough of experts,” Gove said before the referendum.

And after a campaign in which almost every expert, and expert institution, warned against Brexit, the result suggests that he may be right.

Exploiting and amplifying this mistrust was a key tactic of the Brexiteers. Arron Banks, an insurance tycoon who bankrolled the unofficial Leave.EU campaign, explained how the US strategy firm he hired approached the brief: “What they said early on was ‘facts don’t work’ and that’s it. The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally.”

That this approach carried the day has huge ramifications for universities.

Vice-chancellors are worrying about where the money’s going to come from (again), how students may be affected, whether research groups will start to break up under the strain of uncertainty and in a souring atmosphere.

But too much of universities’ lobbying before the vote was interpreted as narrow, self-interested concern, and there is danger in not learning from that bruising experience.

Universities have to be relevant to and valued by more than just graduates.

They must think hard about how they can change the minds of those who see academia as part of a conspiracy of the “elite”; those who seem to equate expertise not with objectivity but with an agenda – one that feels (and remember, this is about emotion) divorced from their lives.

For the past five years or so, there has been a huge emphasis on research impact: academics have been instructed to communicate – to prove their value – and many do.

But not, it seems, in a way that translates for a huge portion of society. And as we report in our news pages this week, some fear that the clamour of voices, and inevitable simplification that has ensued, may have harmed rather than bolstered public trust.

In our cover feature, Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history at the University of Oxford, points out that universities have never been constrained by national borders. It’s not how ideas – the pursuit of truth and knowledge – work.

But that’s not to say that universities do not play a vital role in the life of the nation, and the question now is: how can they reach the parts that they currently do not reach?

It won’t be through a campaign coordinated and broadcast from London.

But universities have the great advantage of being spread across the country – they’re almost unique as institutions of national significance that are not creatures of London alone.

Perhaps it’s this local role that needs attention now. It doesn’t have the glamour of leading national debates, the appeal of reaffirming commitment to Europe or the big-picture narrative of globalisation. But universities are ideally placed to step up the “elite’s” human contact with what Brexiteers would call “real people”, and it’s in the interests of all that they do.

john.gill@tesglobal.com

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Our new mission: reconnect

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

Laurel and Hardy sawing a plank of wood

Working with other academics can be tricky so follow some key rules, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford will host a homeopathy conference next month

Charity says Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford is ‘naive’ to hire out its premises for event

women leapfrog. Vintage

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman offer advice on climbing the career ladder

Woman pulling blind down over an eye
Liz Morrish reflects on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside
White cliffs of Dover

From Australia to Singapore, David Matthews and John Elmes weigh the pros and cons of likely destinations