Universities’ challenge

Higher education institutions must learn to play politics or their role in civil society will be determined by public opinion and financial pressures

By Jonathan Wolff

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It may seem odd that the dry and dusty university sector receives so much attention. But here in the UK tuition fees have been a major electoral issue, so there we are: in the newspapers and on TV screens on a regular basis. Of course, those of us in the university sector will insist that we are important, but so too are primary schools, midwifery units and mental heath services. It is probably because so many reporters and news editors are at an age when they want to get their children into the best possible university that their attention swings in our direction. And for many parents, whether their children are carrying on the family tradition of attending a particular Oxbridge college, or are the first in the family to enrol on a higher education course, there is great pride and ambition in smoothing the passage of your offspring into the first years of adulthood.

But the struggle for university admission encourages a fairly narrow focus on what a university is and does. Universities are judged by applicants on whether they offer the desired course, what their entry standards are, how they will look on a CV and what sort of social opportunities they offer. For most candidates, the precise nature of their academic course comes a long way down the list of priorities. Few applicants or their advisers are even in a good position to judge relative merits and, unless some sort of alarm bell has been set off, universities are generally trusted to provide a sound training in the chosen field.

There is, nevertheless, a deeper discussion to be had about what universities should be doing and how they should be set up to do it. In typical UK style, we have done our best to avoid the issue, but from time to time it bubbles up. For example, a few years ago a Swiss academic caused a stir on an internet philosophy discussion group by suggesting that it is important for university faculties to be composed primarily of national citizens. This, he said, was because universities have the role of “passing on national culture and values” and only home academics can do the job.

Culture shock

That same day I was at a workshop at the London School of Economics and I went out to dinner with colleagues from a number of London philosophy and politics departments, together with our workshop guests. Of the 30 or so academics at the dinner, only two were British citizens. One was to leave for Australia the following year, and I was the other, although only one of my parents and none of my great-grandparents were born in the UK. Discussions that evening revealed that no one had ever thought that our mission as academics is to pass on the national culture of the country in which we taught. Few, if any, felt equipped to do so in any case. But maybe we were doing this despite ourselves, not just in our choice of curricula and reading, but more broadly in how we have absorbed and passed on the university’s obscure rites and customs. Certainly, every university manages to generate a great deal of anxiety for new students and staff about doing things the right way.

“Universities often assume the role of unofficial opposition”

But if not passing on the national culture, what, then, is the mission of a university? Every university has its mission statement, and at the core they are all the same: to achieve excellence in research, to produce open-minded and clear-thinking students, to foster international collaboration, and, broadly, to make the world a better place on a local, national and global level. Sociologists, though, will point out that universities play many other parts too, largely connected with reproducing themselves as the headquarters of the intellectual elite. Universities do this by restricting entry to their sacred seminar rooms, and policing the boundaries of who is allowed to make a contribution to academic debate via the most prestigious publishing venues. This is the case even when our official policy is to widen access and overcome all forms of discrimination.

One alleged form of discrimination, however, is even more of a taboo than others. There have always been rumblings about left and liberal bias in the academy, but the pitch is rising. Anecdotally, the association is overwhelming. In many UK humanities and social science departments you will be hard pressed to find a single academic who votes Conservative. In other areas the picture is little more mixed, but hardly representative of national trends. Is this the result of self-selection or bias? Probably a bit of both. Those known for their right-wing views may well be less likely to be called for interview or to survive the process. Knowing their likely prospects, others may exit academia at an early stage. One study from the US suggests some bias in hiring decisions, claiming to show that “even after taking into account the effects of professional accomplishment, along with many other individual characteristics, conservatives and Republicans teach at lower quality schools than do liberals and Democrats. This suggests that complaints of ideologically based discrimination in academic advancement deserve serious consideration and further study.”

If it is true that universities should have a key role in passing on the national culture, it is natural to think that, politically, they should reflect the culture in which they reside. As they are currently composed, universities, although largely state funded, often assume the role of unofficial opposition, most often from a left-liberal perspective, whatever the current ideological makeup of the government. Miraculously, most governments around the world have been prepared to grin and bear it, respecting academic freedom and not wishing to intervene. But with an authoritarian political wave sweeping across the world, from China to the US, things are already changing. Chinese colleagues report that they are now less free to teach western ideas than they were just a few years ago. But the greatest attack on universities at the moment seems to be in Turkey, where there has been a purge of academics alleged to have been complicit in the attempted coup. If they really were part of a plot, it must have been one of the swiftest forming and most secret large-scale conspiracies known to history. In any case, opponents of President Erdogan are being removed from potentially influential positions.

The danger, then, of seeing universities as having a primary role in passing on, or at least protecting, the national culture, is that it gives governments licence to intervene when they believe this is not happening. Yet, equally, creating a university that floats free of national culture has its dangers. We see this in the predicament of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, which was initially funded by investor and philanthropist George Soros. Founded to attract postgraduate students from a wide range of countries, particularly in central and eastern Europe, it has one of the highest proportions of overseas students in the world. But new Hungarian legislation on higher education will make it impossible for the CEU to operate in the country, according to the university, which believes it is being deliberately targeted. One wonders, though, whether this assault would have happened, or at least in the same way, if the Hungarian political elite aspired to send their children to the CEU for their undergraduate education.

UK universities, especially those in London, also figure very highly in terms of international student recruitment, at least for the time being. Five of the world’s top 10 most international universities are in London. But it has not always been so. I was an undergraduate in London in the early 1980s, in a cohort of 40 philosophy students. Among us was one ex-pat Italian — the daughter of a pilot based in London — and one mature American student, but everyone else was British, almost all from the south of England. In contrast, the student body now at many UK universities is truly international.

It is probably a combination of three factors that has led us here. First, there is simply a desire by many universities to attract the brightest and best from all around the world, to invigorate the classroom and lab. Second, there is a falling demographic of 18-year-olds in the UK and this trend will not be reversed for several years. The continuing expansion of the higher education sector simply would not have been possible without a large number of overseas students. Third, of course, international students are needed for financial reasons. Many people regard the standard fee level for home and, for the time being, EU students, as scandalously high, at up to £9,000 per year. But for comparison, private schools that really do reproduce an idea of the national culture charge an average of between £15,500 and £26,000 a year for a day pupil. By this standard it is hard to see how universities can survive on £9,000 per student, and, by and large, they cannot. To offer UK students the education they expect, cross-subsidy from high-paying international students is now essential.

“Reducing international numbers would make a university seem parochial”

It is this level of dependence that makes Brexit and the proposed reduction in the numbers of international students such a financial threat to UK universities. When she was home secretary, Theresa May suggested that universities need to develop business models that are not so dependent on overseas students. This is rather like telling political parties to develop platforms that are not so dependent on votes (although for some political parties that does seem to be the current reality). The only apparent way to do this is to cut costs, and given that for universities the most significant costs are staff and space, going down this route is a short-cut to mediocrity, with more staff on part-time contracts with no time for research, and increasingly crowded classrooms.

International standard

We have, therefore, a precarious balance. In almost all cases, the majority of staff and students at UK universities are domestic, although virtually all institutions have a significant international presence too. So what is the right proportion? In today’s world, reducing international numbers would make a university seem parochial and stale, not to mention financially weak. Yet, increasing international numbers can detach universities from their national base and cut off local support. In pragmatic terms, a steady flow of home undergraduates is needed to help make opinion formers and voters care about universities. But to make universities worth caring about, they need to be international in outlook.

For university staff, however, the most significant recent change in universities is what they see as rising managerialism and an even greater concern for university finances. In the UK, university management has rarely been popular with staff, and there is now a widespread belief that pressure on academic staff is running at unprecedented and unsustainable levels. Once upon a time, it is thought, there was a golden age with generous government finance, low student numbers, no evaluation of teaching, no assessment of research, and every day a real lunch break accompanied by a glass of wine or two to set you up for the afternoon. Yet, at best, this is a highly selective memory. Looking through department files over the decades, each year there are letters referring to unexpected financial strain through a change in funding formulae, exceptional costs, and the need to make cuts. Every university finance spreadsheet I have ever seen suggests that this year and next year will be tough, but in year three our scrimping, saving, dedication and planning will reap rich dividends. In 30 years in higher education, I am yet to reach year three.

However, despite continuity of strain, there is something new in university finances. With the increased reliance on fees and reduced direct government investment, next year’s income for any university is far less secure than it has been in previous decades. This difference, rarely properly explained to staff, is at least in part behind the pressure at many universities to run a significant operating surplus and build up reserves. A decline in student numbers, especially high-fee masters students, where the numbers are very volatile, can put a university into a financial tailspin. Money in the bank is needed simply to guarantee that salaries can be paid for a few months.

Yet, with a proposed cap on international student visas designed to reduce net immigration figures, a financial shock seems to be what the government is planning for the sector. Of course, after a couple of years the immigration numbers will stabilise at a lower level and net immigration will stop falling. Yet the harm to universities will be permanent. I have not seen detailed plans for the proposed policy, but one possible outcome is that the Russell Group of top universities will soak up the bulk of the permitted international students and, where they have unfilled capacity on courses, will accept more home students, dropping entry standards where necessary. This will leave universities further down the league tables very vulnerable, with the real possibility of closure for some newer institutions.

Many of these are located in economically struggling regions of the country, where they are a significant local employer. And, of course, the newer universities are home to many of the most radical academics, who are most critical of government policy. These universities also have the highest concentration of ethnic minority staff and students. Hence, one possible consequence of reducing international student numbers will be to take the critical edge off the university sector, reversing the admittedly meagre achievements made in recent decades. And this, of course, is how indirect discrimination often works. Not by overt government policy, as in Turkey or Hungary, but by the apparently unintended, but welcomed, consequence of policies selected for other reasons. Conspiracy theory can be overdone, but incidental effects can sometimes be very useful in achieving wished-for goals.

Common purpose

What, then, can we expect for higher education in the UK in the coming decade? Universities in the middle of expansion plans premised on increased overseas student numbers will lobby furiously against student number caps, while quietly seeking out a plan B of retrenchment. Financial pressure will turn a screw many wrongly claim cannot be turned any further. Universities, in their role of employers, will continue to be squeezed between their progressive aspirations and the regressive reality forced on them by financial pragmatics. And ideologically, it is hard to see anything but the intensification of criticism of government policy. But it is also hard to see the government taking very much notice, other than by inventing new ways to undermine the security, authority and credibility of the sector.

If that is what we can expect, what should we hope and lobby for? The reason university mission statements — emphasising the pursuit of excellence in research, teaching and public engagement — are all the same is because these are the goals that universities must aim at if they are to be worthy of the name. Both universities and the government must support staff and students so that they can achieve their best work. Researchers should be allowed to follow their ideas wherever they lead, and students should be prepared not just for the job market, but to take their place in civil society. This means that the government must exercise restraint in any temptation to bend universities to its own agenda. It must help secure access to international sources of research funding, as well as maintain significant flows of international staff and students. It should also sort out the mess of undergraduate tuition fees, which, with the recently announced retrospective change to interest rates, could become the UK’s next financial mis-selling scandal, draining confidence from both the government and the universities. And many universities need to do much more to embed themselves in their local community, for mutual benefit.

The American political philosopher John Rawls said that while the politician plans for the next election, the statesperson plans for the next generation. We need statespeople at the helm of higher education, but in the meantime, universities, not just in the UK but the world over, have to learn how to be better at politics.


This article was originally published in the RSA Journal Issue 1 2017 which went to press before the UK general election

Jonathan Wolff is Blavatnik Chair in Public Policy at the University of Oxford

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