Universities and academics focus too much on the way major political questions such as the European Union referendum will affect them, rather than the whole country, and risk becoming “parochial, conservative and insular” if they fail to embrace civic engagement.
Emran Mian, director of the Social Market Foundation, makes the comments in an essay for a collection marking the official launch of the UPP Foundation, a charitable organisation established to tackle the big issues facing UK higher education.
The collection, Laying the Foundations: Examining the Relationship between Universities, Students and Society, covers the topics the foundation is focusing on: access and retention, the civic university, employability and global citizens.
In his essay, Mr Mian argues there are three symptoms for universities “losing confidence in themselves as civic institutions”. Primarily, he suggests that academics too often frame societal issues within the context of what it means to higher education.
“When you look closely, are people from universities engaging in the debate about immigration or the future of the UK in the EU from the perspective of what it means for universities or what it means for the country? All too often it is the former,” he writes.
Mr Mian also noted an “unwillingness for academics to be at the leading edge of cultural change or to take risks in political, religious and economic debate” and universities’ propensity to treat widening participation as an issue of “regulatory compliance” instead of an opportunity for civic engagement.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, he said that autonomous universities “wouldn’t quite be living up to the credence that they have and the scale that they have if they’re not challenging some of our cultural assumptions, if they weren’t getting stuck into some of the most difficult and controversial ethical, religious or political debates that are going on in society”.
“If universities continue to talk about public issues in a parochial way, it risks becoming a bit of a cycle. If vice-chancellors only talk about the Europe debate with respect to what it might mean to their future funding, then it feeds into that idea that they are not a broader part of our society and our economy – [that] v-cs are mainly there to look after the interests of their institution.
“When they get involved with public debates, they should be thinking about the role of the university within the wider public.”