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Good morning. With the imminent shift to the Easter break on the horizon, the sector is arriving at peak conference season. And so in the relative calm of parliamentary recess and half term, we're thinking a lot about universities in the 'new politics', the way forward (and how we get there) after a tumultuous few months. There's still time to get your response in to the industrial strategy green paper before the holiday. We round up what else is going on, what you might have missed on Wonkhe and the rest of the week's HE agenda. The Monday Morning Briefing will return after the bank holiday and the Wonkhe Daily will continue as usual tomorrow. Have a great week. 

Mark Leach, Editor
mark@wonkhe.com

Universities and the political new times

"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.

Low politics

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.

High politics

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. 

Industrial strategy deadline

The deadline for submissions to the government’s consultation on its Industrial Strategy Green Paper is next Monday. With the bank holiday weekend to look forward to, this means the final touches to submissions will be being made in time for Thursday.

The Green Paper was widely considered to be very green, with few concrete policy proposals and considerable ambiguity about how it all might be taken forward. This appears to reflect the divisions in government about the best way forward. The free-market liberal wing of the Conservative Party (and the civil service) has been wary of attempts to introduce a comprehensive industrial strategy since the 1980s, and there is considerable pressure being put on Greg Clark by some backbenchers and free-market think tanks not to return to a policy of ‘picking winners’ or a ‘planned economy’. For too many Tories this conjures up memories of British Leyland, the National Coal Board, and aggressive market intervention and subsidies.

So while the industrial strategy has frequently been trumpeted as a possible big growth policy area for universities, science and research, the final outcome of this process may prove to be far less radical than the rhetoric. There is also a question of where the strategy places its emphasis, which could significantly impact universities’ involvement. The more pressure to dilute the innovation and investment arm of industrial strategy, the greater likelihood that the final suite of proposals will focus more clearly on the ‘supply side’ of skills and training.

Notwithstanding the vital importance of skills in this economic puzzle, as Richard Jones recently pointed out for Wonkhe, ensuring higher and more regionally balanced levels of investment (particularly business investment) in research and development (R&D) must be a core aim of any meaningful industrial strategy. Business investment in R&D has flatlined for more than a decade, and at 1% of GDP is half that of Germany. London, the South East, and East of England account for 49% of the UK’s higher education R&D spend. On the flipside, Wales, Northern Ireland, the North East and South West see disproportionately small amounts of general R&D spending. Ensuring greater efficiency and equality of investment capital, particularly in R&D, is at the heart of the problem the government is trying to solve.

This regional aspect to industrial strategy could increase its importance for groups of universities in areas considered to be falling behind in R&D. BEIS is currently conducting a series of regional science and innovation audits to better understand some of the regional specific challenges involved, and Clark, Johnson and BEIS officials have been on an engagement tour in recent weeks to meet businesses, universities, and research institutes.

A few recent moves by the government have already had a reassuring effect. The extra £4.7 billion of funding for science and research announced in the Autumn Statement was seen as some early good news and the powerful optics of a strong endorsement for science by the Chancellor didn't go unnoticed. Meanwhile, Jo Johnson’s new top policy wonk is Stian Westlake, a widely respected specialist in innovation policy, most recently at NESTA, perhaps demonstrating that the universities minister is determined that the sector plays an active role in this area.

You can respond to the consultation here.

What else is going on?

Conference week!

Easter is traditionally conference season in the higher education world. Many academic and professional associations are hosting their annual get-togethers this week, including the British Universities Finance Directors Group (BUFDG), the Association of University Administrators (AUA), UCAS’s Annual Admissions Conference, the Political Studies Association (PSA), and Jisc’s Networkshop.

A look through the topics of discussion is a useful indication of the current hot topics in higher education wonkery. UCAS’s conference will consider the new uses of data in widening participation. BUFDG’s conference theme is the relationship between numbers and storytelling, and better demonstrating the impact of financial decision-making. AUA will cover a whole host of live issues, including accelerating progress on equality and diversity, changes in quality assurance, and transforming university estates. And unsurprisingly, Brexit will be a key theme at every conference.   

On Wonkhe, Matthew Flinders of the Political Studies Association has written about how its conference will seek to overturn some of the usual habits of academic gatherings and better connect with other professions and the outside world.  

Third reading and regret motion

The Third Reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill in the House of Lords passed without incident last week. Legislators can enjoy a rest over Easter until the Bill returns to the Commons for consideration of the Lords' many amendments. More interestingly, though of no practical consequence, the Lords also passed a ‘motion of regret’ over the government’s decision to increase tuition fees, the 38th government defeat in the Lords in Theresa May’s short premiership. The debate was unusually detailed and passionate on all sides and worth a read for connoisseurs of Parliamentary debate on HE.

What you might have missed on Wonkhe

As degree apprenticeships are on the rise, Wonkhe’s Catherine Boyd takes a look at the new relationships developing between employers, universities, and the government and the increasingly complicated balance of autonomy and regulation that is only just beginning to come to light. 

Nick Pilcher and Kendall Richards argue the case for testing English at subject level, and not just through IELTs.

The university environment: a mire of power, experiment, opportunity and vulnerability. Richard Peachey examines how staff-student sexual harassment can be tackled within such a climate, arguing for a more urgent approach.

Much scepticism still surrounds the apprenticeship levy, but how can it be made a success? Steve Hill outlines the role that universities can play.

Following media hype around the potential opening of a satellite campus of the University of Oxford in Paris, Paul Greatrix contends that a branch campus is for life, not just for Brexit.

Tackling a question on everyone’s minds, Martin McQuillan asks how to solve a problem like REF 2021.

Following up on our event on the issue with the UPP Foundation, Ant Bagshaw asks if UK HE has a retention problem? on our Team Blog.

Also on this week's HE agenda
Monday 10th April

  • It’s the first day of the UCAS annual admissions conference in Newport.
  • It’s day one of the Association of University Administrators annual conference in Manchester.
  • The Association of National Teaching Fellows hosts its annual symposium at Aston University.
  • AUDE has day one of its conference in Manchester.
  • It’s the second day of BUFDG’s annual conference at the University of Bath.
  • It’s the deadline for HEFCW’s consultation on the use of QAA handbook for quality assessing UK transnational education (TNE) for Welsh institutions.

Tuesday 11th April

  • NUS UK will host its Disabled Students' Conference in Manchester.
  • It’s the second day of the UCAS annual admissions conference in Newport including a contribution from Wonkhe's David Morris.
  • HEA has its conference on What works? Student retention and success.
  • It’s the final day of BUFDG’s annual conference at the University of Bath.
  • Jisc will host its Networkshop45 in Nottingham.
  • It’s the second day of the Association of University Administrators annual conference in Manchester, including a contribution from Wonkhe's Ant Bagshaw.
  • AUDE has day two of its conference in Manchester.
  • The Royal Society has an event on reconsidering science careers at UCL.
  • It’s the deadline for HEFCW’s consultation on revised guidance for student charters.

Wednesday 12th April

  • Jisc has the second day of its Networkshop45 conference in Nottingham.
  • UCAS has the third day of its annual admissions conference in Newport.
  • HEA will host its symposium on transforming assessment in higher education.

Thursday 13th April

  • Jisc has its final day of Networkshop45.
  • University English will hold its AGM.
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