Universities “should not become angst-ridden” about holding different positions to the majority views of their local communities on issues such as Brexit, a vice-chancellor said.
Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, told an event organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Higher Education Academy that institutions’ relationships with local communities should be focused not on politics, since this might “only reinforce the narrative that we’re out of touch”, but on areas where town and gown can work in partnership.
Mr Rammell, a former Labour higher education minister, struck a different tone to Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, who used a speech at a separate event to warn that the institution’s “biggest challenge” from Brexit may be to ensure that it is seen to be “firmly rooted” in a region that largely backed leaving the European Union.
At the Hepi-HEA event, Mr Rammell argued that universities should not play into the hands of populists.
“Universities should not become angst-ridden about [not sharing] the majority views of our local communities,” he said. “There’s no fault in holding the informed view that Britain’s national and economic interests were well-served in Europe.
“It serves...the purposes of populist leaders to paint us as out of touch and elitist because populists like to sell a simple answer to complex problems – whether that’s independence from Europe or building a wall to keep the Mexicans out.”
The UK has not “had enough of experts”, Mr Rammell argued; in fact, “it hasn’t had nearly enough”.
“Focusing on where our politics may differ only reinforces the narrative that we’re out of touch…By contrast, let’s focus on where we can work together on a common endeavour, helping people to cope with complexity, building a shared set of tools to address our mutual challenges and enabling our communities to thrive and survive,” he said.
The solutions advocated by Sir Leszek, who was delivering the inaugural Kate Pretty lecture at Homerton College, Cambridge, were similar: he said that the university must continue to widen participation to disadvantaged students and demonstrate the benefits it has for the local, regional and national economies.
But this could amount to a shift in emphasis for a university that has often focused on its international profile and competitiveness.
And Sir Leszek chose to highlight the disparity between the EU referendum vote in Cambridge, where Remain gained one of its strongest results in the country, and the surrounding areas that heavily backed Leave.
“One of the biggest risks to our legitimacy and reputation is the public feeling that universities’ goals and our societies’ goals are no longer shared – in other words, a breakdown of trust,” he said. “We take enormous pride in our contributions [at Cambridge] to the advancement of science: from Darwin to the discovery of DNA, from the invention of the jet engine to the development of modern computers.
“Yet when people in King’s Lynn or Chatteris ask themselves that classic question – ‘What has the University of Cambridge done for us?’ – I suspect the answer they come up with is: ‘Not that much’.”
Sir Leszek said that the “biggest challenge” from Brexit “may be how to ensure that Cambridge is more widely acknowledged as an institution firmly rooted in our region, and actively seeking to benefit communities beyond its very own”.