Gifts that floor us

A decade that changed the world is drawing to a close. Academia’s enduring values can light the path ahead – if we let them

December 19, 2019
Ballot box
Source: Reuters

The second decade of the 21st century began and ended with volcanic eruptions – in Iceland in 2010, when a dust cloud grounded flights, and with tragedy in New Zealand as 2019 draws to a close.

For the UK, the decade was also bookended by seismic general elections, the first in May 2010 ending Labour’s years in office and ushering in austerity, and in last week’s Tory landslide.

The positioning of higher education in these two elections was rather different.

In 2010, tuition fees were a significant campaign issue, and the decision by the Liberal Democrats to join a coalition government with the Conservatives and break their pledge to oppose fees was to haunt the party.

In 2019, by contrast, higher education played only a minor part in either manifestos or campaigns.

Brexit was the only issue in last week’s vote, and for most in higher education the result will have come as a blow. Brexit is indeed happening, and in our news pages we unpick what the new political landscape means for universities both in policy terms and their place in the world.

A particular focus will be the plans to reshape the economy post-Brexit, with major changes likely for science and research, and for the government’s view of which courses should be encouraged (or, more to the point, discouraged).

If you need a break from all this for the festive season, or if the results of the UK election have little bearing in your corner of the world, we also hope to offer some relief in this week’s Times Higher Education.

In our news pages, we offer our writers’ picks for their “people of the year”.

They include tales of inspirational leadership, such as the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Rocky Tuan, whose brave and principled actions when violence spilled on to his campus put the lie to the notion that all vice-chancellors care only about their inflated salaries.

They include whistleblowers, champions for equality, academics whose work is driving the political debate (Baroness Wolf’s ideas are likely to be crucial to the development of higher education policy under Boris Johnson), and examples of scholarly brilliance that will inspire others.

In our cover story, meanwhile, we feature tales of academic kindness to provide solace and warm the heart.

More than anything, they are a reminder that small acts can mean the world and last a lifetime – even if most are simply “instances of considerate colleagues just being themselves at a moment when we ourselves are feeling particularly overwhelmed by academic life”.

The theme is also picked up in our opinion pages, where John Tregoning, reader in respiratory infections at Imperial College London, offers a 10-point riposte to our recent article on the power of “toxicity” in academia. Tregoning acknowledges that some will accuse him of naivety, but he offers a not entirely unpragmatic strategy for success in academia based on kindness and collegiality.

There is a further appeal to these virtues in our “HE&Me” profile, in which Toby Green, senior lecturer in lusophone African history and culture at King’s College London, is asked how he would like to be remembered.

“For caring, kindness and laughter,” he says. “But one thing that history teaches you is that we are all in the end forgotten…What matters are our collective efforts that will follow on into the future.”

What could be a rather depressing message becomes, when put like this, a message of hope.

Collegiality, kindness, a desire to be part of something bigger are all traditional virtues of academic endeavour – but they do need to be nurtured and given space to flourish at a time of increasingly overwhelming responsibilities and obligations.

If they are, then scholars are to be envied for their shot at immortality through the contributions they make to their students’ lives, and to all of us through research.

It is not only the end of a decade, but, for the UK at least, the end of an era now that Brexit is certain to proceed. For many, that feels like a volcanic eruption shattering their sense of who they are and their place in the world. But we will need universities, and the internationalist values they espouse, more than ever in the years ahead.

From all the team at Times Higher Education, thank you for all you do, and happy Christmas.

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