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WEEKEND READING: Convincing the Government to bailout universities

  • 2 May 2020
  • By Richard Brabner

This blog was kindly contributed by Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation. Before working in higher education, Richard worked for two Conservative MPs (2007-2009). This article is written in a personal capacity and is not the view of the UPP Foundation. Richard has previously blogged for HEPI on free speech and contributed a book review of ‘Little Platoons’ by David Skelton.

During Wednesday’s Education Select Committee appearance, Gavin Williamson made some positive noises about the Government finally agreeing to a stabilisation package for the higher education sector. This is welcome – though we wait to see the size, scope and details of the package.

It led me to think about a 1986 press release from the Department of Education and Science that Mike Ratcliffe, Academic Registrar at Nottingham Trent University, recently shared on Twitter. This included the highlights of a speech that the Secretary of State, Ken Baker, was making later that day to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of UK Universities (the CVCP and the forerunner of Universities UK).

Baker said:

I have read articles about the possible closure of a university. I want to make it absolutely clear that I will not even consider any such proposal. That does not mean to say that there will not have to be change, but closure – no.

Why was a leading figure from Margaret Thatcher’s free-market government so robust in his commitment to prevent institutional failure yet in the midst of a once-in-a-century health and economic emergency, universities have struggled to convince the Treasury of the necessity of a significant bailout?

Part of the reason was answered by Nick Hillman in recent blog: the Government still has a little time to get it right. But I fear the other part of the reason is that universities are ‘out of step’ with the Government’s electoral coalition and actively hostile to its priorities.

Two statements:

  • UK universities are dominated by diligent academic and professional staff working tirelessly to advance and share knowledge, to manage and run complex institutions, to support students and their local communities thrive.
  • UK universities are dominated by diligent academic and professional staff with similar left-of-centre values, which are often in conflict with the current Government.

While there is not a huge bank of peer-reviewed research on the political leanings of the sector, experience and common-sense dictates that both statements are accurate, if overly simplistic.

In an ideal world, this wouldn’t matter. Policymakers and politicians would be rational actors, immediately understand the peril to vital institutions from a unique situation and implement emergency measures accordingly. But politicians and policymakers are, like all of us, human. How a message is framed and who delivers it impacts what they think of it.

I want to share five ideas for how our sector, over the coming weeks, months and years, can persuade this Government of the need for substantial support to weather the crisis, and then build a better and mutually beneficial relationship. Some of my suggestions are crude and blunt. You might squirm. But at a time of great peril, when our future is literally at stake, we must come up with a robust strategy to win the argument for a bailout, and then continue to win the argument for a positive environment beyond.

1. Focus on immediate needs

Getting its diverse members to agree a bailout package is a considerable achievement for Universities UK – particularly for its dedicated and talented staff, who will have been working day and night to support universities throughout the crisis.

This package is strongest where it includes measures to support other key sectors and workers overcome the pandemic, such as those developed further by UUK and MillionPlus this week. I hope and expect this has made a difference in convincing the Department for Education and the Treasury to support the sector.

But the original proposal illustrates universities’ collective action problem. To get its members to sign up to the package, it looks like UUK included a long list of policy asks from all corners of the sector. It is weakest where it advocates policies not directly related to overcoming a short-term hit to income (and significantly benefiting institutions which, regardless of the pandemic, will still be more financially robust). A numbers control policy based on universities’ own forecasts and a 5 per cent tolerance band may be the only compromise possible to prevent wild volatility. Yet it rather exposes a lack of trust and collaborative spirit that universities are looking for government-imposed controls, rather base this year’s admissions on self-regulation and trust to prevent instability.

These policies may seem to go against what the Government has been doing to bailout other sectors, which has been to focus on stabilising organisations. Long-term policy goals can wait for a white paper or spending review. My fear – and I very much hope I’m wrong on this – is that these measures undermine the central argument as they are perceived as self-serving. Advocating for a very different type of bailout to other sectors doesn’t seem convincing. Hopefully, the UUK/Million Plus key worker proposal and contributions from Sir Chris Husbands, who has proposed a Universities Recovery Fund, have turned the tide in our favour. These ideas should be the starting point.

2. Work with Tories to shape and share your message

That people attempting to advance new knowledge and new ways of doing things are progressive rather than conservative is no great surprise. The majority of university staff leaning left is therefore perfectly natural. But human nature suggests this is a problem for the sector’s ability to convince the current Government of its value. University leaders, policy wonks, sector bodies, academics and unions tend to have less intuitive understanding of Tory world views, its factions and traditions than of the Opposition. (Clearly, there are prominent exceptions to this and I’m making a general point.) It is important to work with Conservatives to better understand ideas circulating within the political right, so that you have better intelligence and you can better tailor your message (for example, in economic terms I am astounded by the number of non-Tories who automatically place pro-Brexit Tories on the right and Remainers on the left of the party).

Most directly, the sector simply doesn’t have strong or deep enough networks to advocate on its behalf.

From getting a job to health and happiness, relationships and social networks matter in all walks of life. Politics and policymaking is no different. Politicians are more likely to believe in a policy developed and backed by people they know and trust. In normal times, universities can mitigate some of this problem by diligently working to build professional relationships with all sides and presenting convincing arguments. But professional relationships are no substitute for strong social networks. To be blunt, in addition to the very many fantastic and networked left-leaning colleagues, universities need to work with (formally and informally) the best networked and connected Tories – nationally and locally – and get them to develop and present our powerful arguments over the coming weeks, months and years. For example, while the Civic University Commission was not party political in anyway, it benefited from having the involvement of people well networked within both main parties.

3. Make a pitch to the full Conservative-coalition

Advocacy is more likely to be successful if it aligns with the world view of the politician. The sector should avoid framing in a way which gives the impression that ‘we’ the advocates are right and ‘you’ the Government are wrong. Telling someone they’re wrong is generally futile. To change minds, we need to persuade. To do that the sector has to build an argument which appeals to the values that are important to the Government and its supporters.

These points are not a new or novel, but they are particularly critical now. Linked to the point above, universities have worked closely with liberals on the Conservative benches to advance their policy interests. For a time, they ran their party and country, so it made sense to focus on this group. These individuals share many of the same broad values which dominate within universities, so it was always a relatively easy sell.

But the world is rapidly changing, and this has put us on the back foot. The pandemic is likely to strengthen critics of the liberal consensus on the Right. Values such as belonging, security, social cohesion, solidarity and community are now as important as freedom, choice, liberty and globalisation. That’s not to say liberal voices in the Conservative-coalition have evaporated. Some, like the Prime Minister who describes himself as a ‘Brexity Hezza’, have feet in both camps. Policy will therefore be guided by a mixture of world-views and will sometimes come across as contradictory to those who do not appreciate the full Conservative-coalition.

Given the role and purpose of universities, there is no reason why we can’t thrive in this environment (after all, tertiary education will be central to the levelling-up agenda), and in some ways a policy environment which focuses much more on collaboration and fraternity will appeal to many in universities. Indeed, it builds on the re-emergence of the civic university as a core priority. But there is a huge job for institutions to delve into where liberal critics are coming from and pitch arguments in a way they can appreciate.

4. Relentlessly focus on the public and build a coalition

The best way to protect the sector is to make it a priceless asset to the public – particularly sections of the public which swing elections. Universities receive strong support from the urban middle classes, but there is less engagement from the key C1 and C2 socio-economic groups. We might not be able to change this overnight, but every campaign we run should position the sector positively with provincial and ‘blue collar’ Britain. That means choosing the right messages to convince this group and the right messengers to carry them.

We need to redouble our efforts to ensure powerful advocates locally and nationally are speaking up for universities who connect with either the key C1/C2 public and/or directly to the interests of the government.

An obvious point often made: having someone else say you’re great is more powerful than you saying you’re great. The charity sector had MPs like Danny Kruger and Iain Duncan Smith making powerful interventions in favour of the civil society bailout. Yet our sector, outside of former university ministers, hasn’t received the same level of support (so far).

Local MPs are the first port of call. It is interesting to note that Conservative MPs often have modern or non-selective institutions in or near their patch. These universities – and ideally local and trusted advocates for universities – must square with these MPs on the impact the crisis will have on employment, opportunities and the wellbeing of the towns they represent (and the Government’s ability to deliver the levelling-up agenda without their local university…).

Nationally, we need an MP with the ear to No.10/11, or an energetic party grandee who could really lead the parliamentary campaign.

In our communities and on the national stage, we need to quickly get business, NHS, college, school and cultural leaders on side speaking on our behalf. Perhaps there are leading public figures who connect well with middle and working-class households we can use during this campaign.

When universities or the wider sector are speaking directly to government or through the media we need to make sure the messenger is convincing. Anyone who comes across as overly hostile to the Government or a particular policy will have little credibility (this isn’t to say the Government shouldn’t be criticised, but you will lose credibility with the people you’re trying to convince if the critique is either over-the-top, perceived to be based on political priors, or implies their motives are immoral).

5. Ignore the contrarians

Without getting into campaign ethics, the most successful political campaign in living memory is Vote Leave. Its insurgent operation persuaded millions of people who typically did not vote in general elections that this was their chance to force change upon the country. One of the key lessons from this campaign was the importance of setting the terms of the debate. Time and time again, the Remain side were responding to an agenda set by Vote Leave.

The sector often falls into the same trap as the Remain campaign. While you should try and persuade thoughtful liberal-sceptics, it is best to completely ignore the right-wing contrarians. In recent years, too much of the debate about higher education has been clickbait fodder. A provocative pundit writes some over-the-top commentary. The inevitable outraged response ensues, which entrenches positions further. The only winner in this scenario is the contrarian, who builds up their profile from comments, retweets and likes and sets the terms to which the sector responds.

Dear friends, ignore them. Focus on the messages which will have the best cut through to our target audiences. Set the terms ourselves.

A better future

Within the next few days we hope the Government will finally accept and announce the sector’s need for substantial support. Perhaps in 34 years’ time our equivalents will be positively quoting Rishi Sunak and Gavin Williamson who ‘will not even consider any such proposal’ to let a university close down. But whatever the outcome of the bailout, I’ve published the above ideas to spark a genuine conversation on how, as a sector, we can adopt a better and more appropriate strategy to convince this Government of our value over the coming weeks, months and years.

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