Finding a third way

Universities are too often used for political point-scoring. Finding a way to implement and protect long-term plans for the sector would benefit all

June 23, 2022
Worzel Gummidge with two Aunt Sally's to illustrate Finding a third way
Source: Getty

Alongside a blizzard of policy proposals, the Times Education Commission’s year-long inquiry into the UK education sector offered a view that is not often found in a national newspaper.

Instead of “taking any opportunity to pick a fight with universities”, the government should drop its “capricious and overly political” attitude to higher education and acknowledge the sector as integral to levelling up and the future prosperity of the country.

Could that be the sound of a penny dropping?

The theme was picked up again in a Times column by the historian Sir Max Hastings a day later, in which he reflected on Britain 40 years after the Falklands War, bemoaning the tendency to dwell on past glories rather than embrace the strengths of today or the opportunities of tomorrow.

“It is droll, is it not, that the SAS commands more popular veneration than any other national institution? If we knew which way our bread was buttered…we would instead lavish admiration on Imperial College London,” he wrote.

Cue cheering in South Kensington. But hold on a minute – a few paragraphs later, that penny fell through the grate of a drain as Hastings cast around for examples to illustrate a “shrinkage in acceptance of obligations” in modern Britain.

Inevitably, he landed back on higher education, saying it “would have been unimaginable, in 1982, for university lecturers to assert that they need not address students in the flesh”.

The assertion that eager students are being short-changed by lazy academics seems to have become accepted fact, but the truth is rather different, as our recent survey on post-pandemic attendance rates showed.

It may seem a waste of time and energy to worry about such things – after all, commentators are going to commentate.

But there is a case to be made that the diminution of higher education to a small number of recurring controversies and alleged failings does a disservice not just to universities but to the country, at a time when ideas and innovation are not exactly overflowing in other quarters.

If academics cannot be bothered to get out of the easy chair to teach their students, why should the taxpayer trust in their ability to help solve the UK’s productivity puzzle, or find ways to address the looming climate catastrophe?

The temptation, then, is to dismiss any and all such criticism of higher education.

But take another of the concerns in Hastings’ critical appraisal of modern Britain: that “life for the young threatens to become one big, ridiculous trigger issue”.

Such an assertion will itself be enough to trigger many in higher education.

However, the findings of a survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute this week offer pause for thought on attitudes to free speech on campus.

Unusually for this topic, the survey offers something new: longitudinal data on how attitudes among students have changed since an earlier iteration of the poll in 2016.

The findings, reported in our news pages, suggest that students are significantly more censorious, including over whether academics who teach material that “heavily offends” some students should be sacked (36 per cent say they should – up from 15 per cent in the previous survey). That is both surprising and concerning.

Elsewhere this week, we have an opinion article making the case for avoiding groupthink in research.

After two decades running a research centre in a Max Planck Institute in Berlin, the author says he has come to understand that “groupthink is the rule rather than the exception in academia, probably contributing to many irreproducible research findings”.

The lesson is not just to allow but also to seek out a diversity of views, since “contrarians shape the intellectual and social climate of a group…[and] in turn, they shape the quality of its science”.

It is a persuasive argument – and a policy that could perhaps be applied beyond the lab.

In discussions about higher education, though, what is needed most is not more contrarians, but consistency of strategy and its implementation.

The biggest proposal from the Times report was focused on this: removing education policy from the political cut and thrust by implementing a 15-year strategy, detaching it from the electoral cycle.

It is a bold, possibly unworkable, plan given the nature and structure of British politics – but one that has great merit. Universities, schools and colleges are just too important to be used for political point-scoring. That ministers often seem not to appreciate that is, frankly, unfathomable.

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