Martin McQuillan, Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University, posted an interesting review of the new Stefan Collini book What are universities for? on WonkHE recently. The review itself is worth a read but I was particularly interested in his concluding comments:
Equally, and as a matter of urgency, we need to develop a productive, hybrid idiom in which policy can accommodate awareness of its own history and analytical self-reflection, while critical academic writing can direct its intelligence towards the task of addressing the pressing political (practical) questions of today that will otherwise be left to the think tanks and the policy wonks. The choice cannot only be between ‘HEFCE-speak’ or ‘Collini-ism’; another conversation must evolve if the idea and practice of the university is to have a chance in the future.
I think he’s hit a number of nails on the head (not least the one about the need for historical awareness in policy development – though that could also be developed in university management too). Perhaps the most important point he makes though is about current absence of a ‘productive, hybrid idiom’ in which to discuss higher education. Votes of no confidence in the Minister, dire warnings of the end of days, even despondent head-shakings in corridor conversations further disengage and distance academe from policy.
We cannot afford for the message received in Westminster and Whitehall of an unreasonable and unresponsive sector to be consistently reinforced (however unjustified that might be). Language matters, as Prof. McQuillan recognises. It conveys our motives and intentions, our commitments and our parameters. There is a legitimate dialogue to be had about the future of higher education (though the exchange between academe and policy should range much further – universities have much to offer every area of policy from transport to justice) but we need a shared language. Maybe that should be our ‘grand challenge’?
NB: That is not to say that there aren’t entirely genuine and justifiable concerns about the government’s current programme of reform, but we need to be part of the policy development process if we want to shape it.
As an aside, I think ‘policy wonks’ (I’m blaming Mark Leach for the traction that term seems to have achieved!) at least those inside universities, could be seen as part of the solution rather than the problem. As long as they are engaged with the core activities of the institution, they are well-placed to act as brokers, mediators or translators between universities and policymakers. This could be by having a hybrid role combining policy with other responsibilities, whether professional or academic, or by structuring their work to ensure regular contact, particularly with Schools or Faculties. Secondments between university and government policy functions would enhance their ability to operate in and between the two worlds (as well as helping their inhabitants to be bilingual).