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.


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