Universities are the aces in the political pack

Higher education is often cast as politically insignificant, but look closer and it is frequently a chip in the highest-stakes game around

June 6, 2019
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The old adage that the politics of academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small is all very well, if a bit of a cheek.

But look through the other end of the telescope – not at internal machinations, but at the political significance of higher education and research on the grand stage – and academia increasingly finds itself a trump card in the highest-stakes game around.

Consider a few examples.

Universities are a central battleground in the culture wars raging in the West, as societies polarise left and right and politicians respond in increasingly populist fashion.

At the same time, they are turned to as tools to address social and economic inequality, and delivery mechanisms for industrial strategies designed to deal with politically toxic stagnation.

The result can be lurches in policy as governments yank levers in one direction or another.

The launch last week of the Augar review is a case in point (and you can find analysis of its recommendations for UK higher education, as well as its political prospects, in our news pages).

As John Morgan, Times Higher Education’s political reporter, points out in a blog analysing the review, “all its main recommendations are about reversing, wholly or partially, David Cameron and George Osborne-era Conservative policies.

“The report unwinds the trebling of university tuition fees, the slashing of further education funding, the abolition of student maintenance grants and the use of the market and student choice as the main drivers for higher education funding.”

Universities have also thrown the political dice themselves, as in the case of Brexit, on which they took an unusually partisan position in the run-up to the referendum. The academic polling expert Sir John Curtice has suggested that this may have invited some of the public backlash that followed.

The political power of universities in Asia is even more potent.

The extraordinary level of funding for higher education and research in China, to use the most significant example, is certainly investment in engines of economic growth.

But it is also a projection of political strength – China invests as it does in research because it is important to its status and global ambitions to be competing, and winning, in this sphere.

That is not to say that all governments take the same view.

It often seems that it is those with the most to lose who behave most recklessly – let’s leave the UK and US out of it for once, and take instead the example of the Ford government in Ontario, which has just axed C$20 million from a world-leading artificial intelligence research institute.

At least those in the UK, facing the possibility of a no-deal Brexit that imperils the research base, can take some solace that it is not the only country to shoot itself spectacularly in the foot.

Elsewhere in our news pages, we take an in-depth look at how so-called science diplomacy has evolved, and the role that universities and researchers can play in maintaining cooperation, respect and understanding when political channels start to freeze over.

The risk is that the natural flow of ideas and expertise stemming from researcher-led collaboration becomes overly planned, or even weaponised (a charge that the US is increasingly making of China).

But the benefits can be enormous, and collaborative research will surely be one of the strongest ties between the UK and European Union post-Brexit, whatever the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe.

So after a week in which higher education has been back at the top of the UK political agenda, with hugely important decisions turning on the whims of internal Conservative Party politics, it is worth reflecting that higher education is not, as we are sometimes led to believe, a political backwater.

For better or worse, it is right there in the thick of it.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Aces in the political pack

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