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Are universities losing the culture war?   

  • 28 May 2022
  • By Diana Beech

On Thursday, 9 June 2022, HEPI will host its Annual Conference in central London. Titled ‘Challenges for the future?’, the day will include the launch of the Advance HE / HEPI 2022 Student Academic Experience SurveyRegister here.

This blog has been kindly contributed by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher and Independent Governor at the University of Worcester. It is a summary of remarks made on Friday 27 May as part of a panel at the Hay Festival 2022 in association with the University of Worcester entitled, ‘How should higher education become fit for the future?’

While nobody has officially declared a ‘culture war’ against universities in this country, there is no doubt that our higher education sector is coming under increasing fire from ministers and the press.

Since the Brexit referendum, UK society has become increasingly divided: we have those who voted to leave the EU against those who voted to remain. In his book, The Road to Somewhere, David Goodhardt puts this down to divisions between the ‘somewheres’ (those people who stay in their hometowns) and the ‘anywheres’ (those that tend to move away for university or work, and are well-travelled and well-networked). Age-old generational divisions have also become even more entrenched, with older and younger people now largely split along leave / remain lines or even right / left political persuasions. 

The dividing lines in this country have been drawn for some time, but it was the current Government’s General Election victory in December 2019 on its pledge to ‘Get Brexit Done’ that put the nail in the coffin for those parts of society that were seen to be getting in the way. That includes universities which, by and large, appear to have been speaking a different language to Government for some time – not just over Brexit, but also culturally, as more and more young people embark on higher education, move to cities and turn away from the politics of their parents and grandparents. 

Moreover, universities have become a thorn in the side of politicians and a battleground on which elections are won or lost. We all know what happened to the Liberal Democrats following the tripling of tuition fees under the Coalition Government in 2012.  Since then, in some university cities such as Cambridge and Canterbury, the Conservative vote has all but disappeared. In Scotland, by contrast, the Scottish National Party has surged with its free tuition policy and, in the lead up to the next General Election, all eyes will be on Sir Keir Starmer to see if he backtracks on Jeremy Corbyn’s free tuition pledge and what that could do to Labour’s stronghold in England’s university cities.

In short, whether it be because of their liberal politics or their increasing popularity with young people and rising costs for the Treasury, universities have become poisonous business for the Government – despite the fact most MPs and ministers have got to where they are by going to one!

Although the Conservative Party’s critique of universities is likely not a result of poor personal experiences of higher education, its recent political positioning against universities shows its willingness to play to its support base and build on the scepticism of its newfound voters. Many of whom may never have experienced university themselves and tend to view higher education as further entrenching societal disadvantage. 

Yet, universities are part of everything that is good about Britain today and are usually behind achievements for which the Government likes to claim credit – from educating the talented staff that power our NHS and other public services right through to the innovations that are improving our lives, not least the vaccines that are getting us through the pandemic.

Universities are also a major source of jobs and investment, with the UK’s modern universities in particular serving as real anchor institutions in their regions, boosting local economies, regenerating highstreets and forming strong civic partnerships. Universities do not represent the other culture: they are every bit a part of the culture of which we are proud and seek to protect.

However, universities have not been very good at articulating this. The UK higher education sector has evolved quickly but silently over the past few decades to the extent that universities have effectively become sitting ducks for attacks from those who to continue to think of them as ‘ivory towers’ that are detached from real world.

Popular headlines about an emerging ‘cancel culture’ on campuses across the country have also not helped universities to curry favour with those who already feel looked down on or outcast by academic communities, which have come to be particularly vocal on social media platforms. This has put them even more at odds not just with the current Government, but also with the electorate that voted for them.

It is, however, not too late to turn universities’ image around and there are three things that universities can do:

Firstly, universities need to be investing in their public relations functions. Universities today are ‘big beasts’ and receive a significant chunk of Government money, so demonstrating accountability is important – not just to help them better connect with policymakers but also with the general populace.

Secondly, and related to this, universities need to be talking more about what they do for society, particularly in terms of innovation and community support, so that we can finally put an end to the myth of universities being ‘big schools’. For, as long as they are seen as such, universities risk being treated like property of the state and will lose their ability to challenge, weakening society for us all.

Thirdly and finally, universities need to be seen to be compassionate and constructive. If we stand any chance of increasing universities’ popularity with the nation, then the sector needs to be seen to facilitate, not frustrate. That means working effectively with those who govern as well as the citizens who may never walk through their doors. The more people we can get feeling a sense of pride in ‘their’ universities, the more chance we have at calling time on the emerging culture war.

Register here for HEPI’s annual conference on Thursday 9 June 2022.

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