"If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means." That was what the Prime Minister told Conservative Party Conference back in October. Since that speech, we’ve been observing people across the higher education sector express their despair and bemusement at both the remark and the PM's overall political agenda. But is it possible that universities’ general opposition to the Prime Minister is indicative of the sector falling out of touch with the prevailing political winds? This is the question we’re asking today as we publish a new series on the current place of universities in the public and political consciousness.
There is a growing view that universities are becoming detached from the prevailing mood in ‘low politics’ - the resurgent worldview of what Policy Exchange’s David Goodhart has called the political identity of ‘Somewheres’. Our own David Morris this morning reviews Goodhart’s widely publicised new book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, and considers its extensive examination of the modern higher education sector and its economic and cultural links with wider society.
Goodhart argues that the EU referendum in Britain and varied developments elsewhere have polarised modern politics around two coalitions. Those who identify with ‘Anywhere’ are liberally minded graduates who live in large cities far from where they were born, embracing the rapid pace of change in modern British life. The larger number who identify with ‘Somewhere’ tend not to be graduates, live closer to where they grew up in suburbs and smaller towns, and are generally uneasy about the direction in which the country has been heading over the past few decades. Contrasting education and mobility levels are the two most important characteristic of each group, and the expansion of higher education is a prime cause of the new divide.
Goodhart is not the only observer to point this out. Political scientists such as Rob Ford and David Runciman have both recently written about university attendance becoming a defining feature of political behaviour. As Runciman has observed, this “points to a deep alienation that cuts both ways”, with the well-educated prone to anti-democratic sentiment while the less educated turn to anti-intellectualism - a toxic mix.
If opinion polls are to be believed, the ‘Somewhere’ coalition is coalescing as a huge majority around Theresa May’s Conservative Party, which looks set to be in power for many years. The Prime Minister’s ‘citizen of nowhere’ speech was a deliberate effort to cement this new political coalition; in fact, it was after party conference season that the Tories’ polling numbers really began to take off, particularly at the expense of UKIP. Meanwhile, Labour finds itself torn between its ‘Somewhere’, non-graduate voter-base, and its overwhelmingly ‘Anywhere’, university educated membership.
Changes in ‘low politics’ are in turn shaping a new ‘high politics’. In the Conservative establishment, parliamentary party, press, and grassroots, universities appear to have fewer and fewer friends. Universities’ parliamentary constituencies in England and Wales are overwhelmingly represented by Labour MPs in major cities, with many until 2015 being represented by Liberal Democrats. As Jonathan Woodhead and Giles Garden point out on Wonkhe this morning, while 2010 and 2015 saw a small number of new Conservative MPs for university towns such as Bath, Loughborough and Winchester, higher education is now almost exclusively represented by the opposition and not the government.
It was striking how few Conservative backbench MPs appeared to take any interest in HE policy during the Higher Education and Research Bill’s stages in the Commons. The debate was dominated by Jo Johnson and activist Labour MPs well known to universities such as Wes Streeting, Paul Blomfield, Roberta Blackman-Woods, and the frontbench team of Gordon Marsden and Angela Rayner. Marsden at one point chastised the Conservative members of the Public Bill Committee for their lack of interest.
A recent survey of MPs by ComRes for UUK underlies this problem. Labour MPs are much more likely to have positive opinions of universities’ work than Conservatives, and on the whole seem more interested. Of the ten MPs listed as members of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Universities, only two are Conservatives. Of the fifty-five MPs and peers listed as members of the APPG on students, only twelve are Conservatives.
If and when Jo Johnson is moved on from his current post, there isn’t an immediately obvious pool of MPs sufficiently interested in higher education who might replace him.
As Karmjit Kaur writes for Wonkhe this morning in her summary of the ComRes survey, half the challenge for universities wishing to engage with Parliamentarians is to get MPs to listen and pay attention to the work the sector is doing. This is a particular challenge when dealing with the current governing party. And Conservative political operators are increasingly being influenced by the pages of newspapers and think tanks that take easy shots at universities over issues such as free speech and political correctness, extremism on campus, anecdotes about poor teaching, and from employers expressing dissatisfaction with the quality of the graduate workforce.
Enemies of the people, or just the politicians?
At this intersection of ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics, the sector is in a bind. The perception that universities are out of touch, elitist, and unresponsive to the needs of ‘Somewhere’ communities and values could make government strategists doubt how the sector can present itself as part of the Brexit solution. Goodhart argues that universities are “a vocal lobby for Anywhere openness”, and many in the sector are proud of that affiliation, but at present, this appears to put them in the opposite direction of the prevailing political narrative.
This might well be unprecedented and is certainly novel for the present generation. Universities did not struggle for political relevance under New Labour, or even in the Cameron-Clegg years. Whatever disagreements the sector may have had with those governing parties, there is pretty clear evidence that universities were net beneficiaries from the policies of those administrations compared to other sectors: on funding, student numbers, on autonomy, and even (for the most part) on immigration and global influence.
And it is on that final point where universities become most unstuck. Universities obsess over international perceptions and reputation and jealously guard existing competitive advantages in this area. In the aftermath of the EU referendum the need for reassurance of international partners, staff, students and applicants has led to a doubling down of the globalised, ‘Anywhere’ message - think ‘We Are International’. But as Sunder Katwala has argued for Wonkhe, this doesn’t chime well with the political or domestic social mood.
The sector emphasises that internationalism and local engagement are not mutually incompatible endeavours, and while this is true, there is a simple confusion of messaging. The next crunch will come when the Higher Education and Research Bill re-enters the Commons, where the full might of the government’s whip machine (and its massive polling lead) might prove enough to cower the more liberally-minded Conservative MPs who in another time may have been tempted to oppose the government, and ensure that international students are taken out of migration statistics. For the sector's part, there needs to be an urgent consideration about how it influences the debate and reaches beyond its immediate borders in these new political times.
Read more on Wonkhe:
Comment: Anywhere to Somewhere: the achievement society and its discontents - David Morris reviews David Goodhart's new book in the context of its wider implications for UK HE.
Comment: Are universities keeping up with the new political zeitgeist? Giles Carden and Jonathan Woodhead ask if the sector needs to change tactics to keep up with the changing political agenda.
Analysis: Hear hear - what are MPs perceptions of universities? Karmjit Kaur of UUK on new research at the crux of the question about HE in politics.