Blair's capital hearing aides

March 17, 2000

With the election of new Labour, has Oxford's traditional role as a source of political advice diminished? Harriet Swain asks if the LSE is 'the new Oxford'

Good news, academics. Your country needs you. At least that is what education secretary David Blunkett told a recent meeting called by the Economic and Social Research Council. The watchword is "evidence-based policy" - findings drawn from in-depth research that can back up government action. "I believe passionately that having ready access to the lessons from high-quality research can and must vastly improve the quality and sensitivity of the decisions we, as politicians, have to make," he said. In other words, the government wants to listen to what is coming out of the universities.

But which universities?

In "high-quality research" terms, according to last year's league tables, the universities it should be listening to are Cambridge, the London School of Economics and Oxford, closely followed by Warwick, Imperial College and University College London.

Certainly, the London institutions seem to have had a good run lately. The LSE, in particular, has established something of a reputation as new Labour's personal think-tank. Not only does its director, Anthony Giddens, claim responsibility for the "third way" philosophy that informs government thinking, but economists such as Charlie Bean have been popping over weekly to the Treasury, social policy thinkers Julian Le Grand and Howard Glennerster are invited to breakfast with the chancellor, and its social exclusion unit influences one of the government's favourite policies.

As proof of ministers' new interest inacademic expertise, Mr Blunkett spokeabout six dedicated research centres. The first two have already been set up - one, led by the LSE, involves the University of London and the Institute of Fiscal Studies; the other is a partnership between the Institute of Education and Birkbeck College, London. He also mentioned a new Centre for Evidence Informed Policy and Practice, basedat the Institute of Education, London, and highlighted about a dozen academics and research projects worthy of note. More than half were based in London.

So where does this leave Oxbridge, traditionally believed to be the thinking part of those in power? Cambridge has been putting its efforts into a different kind of power base, joining the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a Pounds 68 million science enterprise project and developing a computer lab with Pounds 12 million of funding from Bill Gates. The position of Oxford, previously considered the chief breeding ground of politicians, is less clear. Is the LSE becoming the new Oxford?

Albert Halsey, emeritus professor of social studies at Oxford, identifies parallels between the LSE now and its origins in the 1890s, when it was set up by Sidney and Beatrice Webb as, he says, "a bid to wrest political dominance and political influence from the Oxford and Cambridge elite".

For the first few decades of the 20th century it seemed to succeed. Under WilliamBeveridge, the LSE helped to formulate the policies adopted by the 1945 Labour government: prime minister Clement Attlee and chancellor Hugh Dalton were former teachers at the school.

But a decade later, according to Halsey, the LSE began to lose some of its reputation for new ideas as people on the left considered it was turning "respectable" and Oxbridge reasserted its supremacy.

Oxford's politics, philosophy and economics degree provided many of the key politicians and political thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s, until the arrival of Margaret Thatcher shook up the university system. Relations with Oxford deteriorated following her attack on university finances. But it was the present government that actually proposed scrapping the Oxbridge college fee, even if the threat was eventually watered down.

Ronald Barnett, professor of higher education and dean of professional education at the Institute of Education in London, agrees that new policy networks have developed recently between Whitehall and London, although he sees it as more a "cementing" than a shift of the Oxford/Cambridge/London triangle. He suggests the government's specific policy interests in social care and education have encouraged ministers to turn to London's specialist centres.

David Marquand, principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, says neither social policy nor education have ever been a strength of Oxford so it is hardly surprising that places such as the LSE and Institute of Education are more influential in these aspects of government.

"What is probably true is that, in the past, where Oxbridge excelled was in economic advice," he says. "But the prime minister is actually not very impressed by academic economists. What he pays attention to is businessmen. Academic economists have become much less influential in government than they used to be."

For Patrick Dunleavy, professor of government at the LSE and a research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, in the 1970s, this is not enough of an explanation. "Oxford has far more people than us in political science, but they do not do the kind of things that matter any more," he says. He accuses the university of failing to change to keep up with the London institutions and having a curriculum "largely of historical interest".

"London is a happening place, and we are much more internationally oriented," he says. "We are not locked into a senior common room, pass-the-port mentality."

But Halsey says that many people get Oxford wrong. They have a mistaken view of a class-ridden, inward-looking and essentially arts-based university when in fact it has valuable international contacts, a large number of foreign students and is increasingly becoming involved in the sciences.

Marquand highlights the new Said Business School as a valuable - if belated - contribution to Oxford's future reputation at home and abroad and something that is likely to impact heavily on public policy.

According to latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, more than half of LSE undergraduates and more than 70 per cent of all graduates were from overseas in 1998-99 compared with 10 per cent of undergraduates and just under 50 per cent of graduates at Oxford. With globalisation a key plank of Labour policy, the LSE has something of a head start. But it also has a physical proximity to those in power.

David Halpern, convenor of the centre-left virtual think-tank Nexus, says:

"It is difficult enough to get MPs to turn up to things. Being physically close is really important."

When James Callaghan was prime minister, he used to go to Oxford from time to time to chat with academics about policy. It is not a habit repeated by Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, who prefer to host parties or seminars in Downing Street.

But David Butler, emeritus fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, denies that he feels excluded from the seat of power - four government ministers are booked in to attend his seminars.

He also says that the government's full-time political advisers continue to be predominantly from Oxford rather than London or provincial universities. Blair's key adviser, David Miliband, head of the prime minister's policy unit, is an Oxford PPE graduate.

This type of insider influence, Halsey says, means it will be a long, long time before the Oxford and Cambridge circles are faded out. "But undoubtedly, in identifiable ways, they are fading out," he adds. "The PPE degree is no longer the training ground for politicians it once was." Nevertheless, he stresses that the relative dominance of Oxbridge and London "oscillates" over time. It may seem that those furthest from the London power base are having to shout louder to be heard, but this could change.

Wherever they are based, academic circles need to fight for influence in the face of think-tanks, focus groups and people with direct experience of business or industry. Not every academic likes the thought of being associated too closely with those in power anyway, and some speculate that "evidence-based" policy could mean finding the evidence to back up policies already adopted by government.

But the offer of a listening ear from ministers must be hard to resist. Marquand argues that in making the most of this, the relative importance of specific universities should not be an issue.

Rather than an LSE voice or an Oxford or Cambridge voice, many academics contribute views, he says. "Who cares if influence comes from Oxford or anywhere else if it is good advice based on good research? It would be best if we could reoriente the whole climate of academia so that academics were less obsessed by research ratings and felt more part of the community of British citizens."

'London is a happening place I more internationally oriented. We are not locked into the senior common room, pass-the-port mentality' 20 featuresThe Times HigherJmarch 17J2000 The Times HigherJmarch 17 2000features 21 tony stone Ian Tovey commissioned to do artwork of Blair with big ear, headline should be something along lines of the question, who does Blair listen to now??

Funded through the European Social Fund, the course is free to those out of employment for six months. Even those going on to do the full degree pay only a third of the normal fee level "because the university believes that we're trying to give access to education to those with not much money," Inglis explains.

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