Empty calories won’t fuel a superpower

To sustain its world-leading universities and science, the next UK prime minister must listen to Tory heavyweights and move on from ‘sugar-rush’ policymaking

August 18, 2022
Rishi Sunak at a sweets' stand to illustrate move on from ‘sugar-rush’ policymaking
Source: Getty

I am old enough to remember a time when England’s higher education policymaking was dominated by highly technical discussions about things that mattered, and a unified universities and science brief was overseen by ministers who, if not always popular, were both engaged and committed.

Today, as a lame duck government limps along and contenders for the Tory leadership cast around for ways to outdo each other in appealing to the party membership, that seems worlds away.

The current state of promises/threats on education from Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak were described by Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, as “sugar-rush policymaking”, which “grabs the headlines but has no real substance”. Examples include the proposed return of grammar schools (Truss and Sunak), suggestions that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge should interview every A-level student who achieves top grades (Truss), and cancelling degrees that do not improve students’ “earning potential” (Sunak).

The chances of such policies seeing the light of day may be unclear: the next general election is already looming and the foreseeable agenda will be driven by the imminent economic maelstrom.

But the return to red meat issues is a reminder of the foundation on which England’s education debate sits, and not just among the Tory members participating in the current leadership election.

As Steven Jones, professor of higher education at the University of Manchester, puts it in a Times Higher Education blog: “In an age of culture wars, all kinds of petty non-stories can be blown up into a headline event if it is politically expedient to do so.

“The temptation for universities is to look the other way until the news cycles roll on. But news cycles don’t roll on. For a public conditioned into distrusting universities, the [negative media agenda] is depressingly plausible.”

The question of how to break out of this is tricky, not least because the political cycle itself works to the detriment of serious policymaking in higher education, a sector that thrives on stability.

Even if politicians worried about a general election only every five years, rather than the regular party leadership contests of recent years, the way in which government is driven by headlines, and the increasingly short-term nature of ministerial tenure, are limiting factors.

This is particularly true for science. The former Tory leader Sir William Hague recently pointed out that there have been four science ministers in the last three years, and currently there is none. For a government pursuing “science superpower” status, this is bizarre, but also a symptom of general dysfunction, and the rest of the world will not wait for the UK to sort itself out.

Already the way in which Overseas Development Aid cuts were implemented has led to a severe breach of trust with research partners that the UK nurtured for years, while ongoing uncertainty about Horizon Europe does further damage.

Meanwhile, countries elsewhere march on, eroding the advantage the UK has as a current leader in the field – superpower status is as much something to be preserved as pursued.

I asked one of the last ministerial heavyweights to oversee universities and science, Lord Johnson of Marylebone, what he thought of the lack of serious discussion about science during the leadership race.

He acknowledged the political reality – that there are not many votes in science or skills – but also pointed to real-world reality: that both are fundamental to lifting the UK’s productivity and addressing the things that are political priorities.

The test of the next prime minister’s commitment to science, he said, will come at the next “fiscal event”.

For Hague, the key is to focus on deliverables: to forget about rhetoric and focus on Cabinet-level grip, with a brief to focus on the details and get things done.

Fulfilling the UK’s scientific potential, he said, is the “single most important activity with which they can bring prosperity, growth and security to this country”.

How, then, to bridge the gap in this age of the political sugar-rush?

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, suggested that the way to persuade the next prime minister to prioritise science had to be both pragmatic and political.

“We must constantly remind them of the links between innovation and the grand challenges facing the world (including low UK productivity), and also to provide lots of opportunities to don hard hats and lab coats in the run-up to the next election,” he said. “Nothing makes a politician feel better about themselves than opening some new world-class facility.”

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

"To sustain its world-leading universities and science, the next UK prime minister must listen to Tory heavyweights"- No. They must bloody listen to the academics/professional services staff who effectively keep the universities going. By academics I mean grassroots not just people with titles.

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