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When should academics speak out, and when should we listen? Thoughts prompted by Michael Ignatieff

  • 12 April 2018
  • By Nick Hillman

Yesterday, Michael Ignatieff, President of the Central European University in Budapest gave a fantastic address and took part in a lively Q&A at the Centre for Global Higher Education conference at UCL’s Institute of Education.

Most of what he said, some of which we have flagged on our Twitter account at @HEPI_News, would almost certainly resonate with the majority of UK academics. For example, he powerfully outlined the threats to academic freedom around the world and how to counter them.

But there is never much point focusing only on areas of widespread agreement. To me, his most interesting comments were the ones that may sound counter-intuitive. For example, despite his loud defence of academic freedom, he sounded sceptical on the benefits of academic tenure.

Moreover, despite his pleas for universities to be less quiescent, he was scathing about those academics who, in his words, talk down to people about their own lives. He cited the example of academics seeking to explain why Sunderland voted Leave in the EU referendum.

I took this not as a reference to, say, political scientists whose specialism is regional voting trends. Rather, he seemed to be criticising academics who assume they should be listened to on any issue because they happen to be an expert in one particular – often wildly different – field.

It is difficult to argue that academics should never feel constrained in what they say and, concurrently, that they should avoid speaking out when straying on to certain areas beyond their academic specialism. At the very least, there is tension between these two positions.

But, surely, Michael Ignatieff has a point? If, as a sector, we believe people should learn from ‘experts’, then is there not a duty to ensure listeners know what position a speaker is speaking from? For example, whether they undertaken a detailed study of the topic being debated?

Ignatieff’s points may be particularly relevant to higher education policymaking. For obvious reasons, a much higher proportion of people working in universities express strong views about higher education policy than about, say, defence policy or health policy or state benefits.

But having personal experience working in the sector does not, on its own, automatically guarantee expertise in constructive higher education policy making.

For instance, when I worked in Whitehall, I had a number of meetings with people from the sector who berated me with all the reasons why the near tripling of fees was wrong. In response, I would ask what they would do instead.

I set only two conditions: first, to accept that we live in a democracy, so it is not the case that anything goes; and, secondly, to recognise that no government has entirely limitless pockets.

The most common response was to express surprise at being asked the question, followed by a promise: ‘I’ll get back to you’. Sadly, they rarely did.

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