Twin forces of change setto meet the millennium

January 15, 1999

In their different ways, think-tanks and academia help build a better society, says Tessa Blackstone

When I was simultaneously running Birkbeck College and chairing the Institute for Public Policy Research, I was well placed to appreciate the different ways in which higher education and think-tanks operate as drivers of change in contemporary society and, in particular, how the research findings and policy proposals they generate help equip policy-makers to shape the future in our democracy.

In democratic societies, governments have never had a monopoly on knowledge. Yet for much of the postwar period, policy-making was guided by the presumption that the man in Whitehall knew best. That has changed irrevocably. Quite apart from the radical devolution and decentralisation of power we have been undertaking since May 1997, the proliferation of new sources and forms of knowledge in society is such that government cannot hope to generate all new ideas and policy programmes. It needs constantly to turn outwards to civil society: to those developing ideas in businesses, public services and the community at large.

Think-tanks occupy a critical role. They operate at a number of interfaces, one of the most important of which is that between higher education and government. Think-tanks rarely conduct primary research, but collate, interpret and translate into policy proposals the work that others have done in universities and elsewhere. They are future-oriented and multidisciplinary in nature. Think-tanks at their best supply connected, or joined-up, thinking to political decision-makers.

The space occupied by think-tanks - between academia, the media, civil society and government - is likely to expand in coming years. In a context where moral and social certainties continue to unravel, so too will the flows of opinion formation in society increase. New thinking and urgent demands for it will come from numerous sources, whether from higher education, the media, voluntary associations, the private sector or from elsewhere. Think-tanks will increasingly be called upon to engineer a two-way process: sensitising institutional politics to practical issues or normative concerns in wider society, and helping translate these into practicable policy proposals.

But think-tanks are not just forums for policy discussion and development.

Some of their most exciting work is practical, action-oriented research that tests new ideas in different contexts and looks at how policies will affect people. The work of the IPPR on the University for Industry is a good case in point. Here was a concept given policy substance by researchers that was then modelled in a pilot project in the Tyne and Wear area. This activity - undertaken independent of government - furnished substantial experience upon which the Department for Education and Employment has been able to draw in the development of the policy on a national scale.

Without their relationship to higher education, think-tanks would not produce work of anything like the depth and importance they can now achieve. Higher education provides much of the raw material on which they depend. For this reason, higher education acts as a cornerstone of democratic society. It is scarcely possible to imagine a democracy in which academics did not have the freedom to challenge prevailing orthodoxy and to pursue innovative and untested ideas. Without higher education our society would be incapable of functioning as a healthy democracy. Nor would our economy stand any chance of survival.

Yet the relationship between higher education and think-tanks is reciprocal. Think-tanks offer a broader picture of the policy process to individual academics and help shape policy agendas within which researchers may undertake specific projects. They also help articulate the wider challenges that institutions face.

The pivotal role of higher education in knowledge development is being transformed. New technologies make the provision of learning in real time anywhere in the globe a reality for whoever can access it. This means that different institutions can operate across previously geographically distinct markets, and that new providers of skills and learning can compete with higher education institutions in terrains previously considered sacrosanct.

The response of our higher education institutions to these challenges will shape the learning society of the 21st century. As a government we have provided the resources - an extra Pounds 776 million over the next two years for higher education and, with the support of the Wellcome Trust, Pounds 1.4 billion for science over the next three. We have also set out a policy framework in which higher education can continue to secure international research excellence and maintain and enhance the highest teaching standards. Within a genuine partnership with government, higher education will be at the forefront of the development of a cohesive, just and prosperous society in the next millennium.

Baroness Blackstone, minister of state for education and employment, yesterday delivered a keynote address to the IPPR 10th Anniversary Conference.

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