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Three ways universities can prepare for a possible general election

  • 18 July 2019

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that there will be a general election before the year is out – perhaps as early as September. I once thought a second referendum was more likely than a general election but, at this moment, it seems I was almost certainly wrong.

It is also entirely possible that neither an election nor a referendum occurs, but the new Prime Minister will have to complete a huge obstacle course successfully in order to avoid it. Some commitments made during the current leadership election are hard to deliver on the existing make-up of Parliament.

So it is an apposite moment to ask if universities and other higher education institutions should be doing anything more now to prepare for the possible election. The answer is a resounding yes.

One thing institutions could quickly and easily do is to invite all the likely candidates for the mainstream political parties onto campus for a briefing and a tour. The goal should be to update them on current issues affecting the sector (international students, financial sustainability, demographic changes and so on).

When done well, the impact of such visits can be much greater than it seems at the time: they can make prospective lawmakers lifelong friends of the sector. (This may sound unlikely, but some of the most interesting things I have ever done were the result of being invited, as an election candidate, to one-off visits to places I wouldn’t normally have been invited. Nine years on, I still recall them clearly.)

Don’t invite only the person most likely to win. Very many people who end up as MPs have stood elsewhere beforehand and will always remember the experience. They may end up representing somewhere without a university where a majority of people believe too many people reach higher education. Giving them a taste of life in a university today can provide another set of influences – and may prove to be a good long-term investment. (Besides, in the current febrile political environment, the person you are certain will win may not be the person who does…).

A second constructive job that can be done now is to build a really accessible, credible and very short document explaining all that your institution does for its area. You probably already have one – but how widely has it gone out?

Any aspiring politician on the stump needs cold hard memorable facts to shower around. Knowing that the local higher education institution employs W people, attracts X students, supports Y businesses and ensures Z graduates a year stick around to work in the local area are the sort of killer facts that politicians love. But if they take up more than one side of one sheet of paper, they are unlikely to be read and they certainly won’t be assimilated or remembered.

Thirdly, if there is an election, there may not be much time for anyone to prepare properly. So there may be fewer public events than usual. Can you put someone in charge now of organising a hustings for students and staff, so that you’re ready to roll the arrangements out the minute an election is called?

Not all these ideas will work for every institution. There may well be better ideas out there. But we have a brief moment when we have the luxury to prepare for something that we know may well occur. It would be unwise to waste it.

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