Post-Brexit, we must make the case for scholarship, not just science…

Exit
Credit: Billy Frank

The vast majority of UK academics supported Remain.  The free movement of ideas and people is vital to what we do.  EU colleagues have brought expertise, students fresh perspectives, and, of course, the UK benefitted disproportionately from EU funding programmes.  Despite this near unanimity, there is a divide in UK academe that I fear Brexit will only sharpen.

Throughout the pre-referendum ferment and into the frankly frightening aftermath, I was one of many non-scientists who followed Scientists for EU.  It’s a great initiative – probably the most active and visible academic campaign.  Everyone knows (or at least says) science matters, right?  It’s easy for a campaigner on the doorstep, or a Minister on TV to talk the talk of celebrating UK science and the need to protect investment, if only as some kind of marker of international prestige when few others come to mind (whether they walk the walk is, of course, another thing…)

The problem is – and this is no criticism of Scientists for EU – that it’s not just science at stake here.  Of the ten most vulnerable subjects to EU research funding, six fall outside the STEM designation.  Beyond money, there’s an intellectual case too.  The lone scholar in the humanities is a prevalent but only a partial picture – and a potentially damaging one.  All disciplines thrive on collaboration and conversation, even if (and even when) our labour is often solitary.  Sustaining a meaningful, productive community of enquiry in the humanities means people meeting, talking, sharing, debating and generally pushing against the boundaries of what we think we know.  Scholarship is always a collective endeavour.  There is more we have in common within academe than divides us along disciplinary boundaries.

But leaving both those arguments aside, perhaps the most powerful case from a policy perspective for dealing with scholarship rather than just science is that, when it comes to solving problems, it’s the mix that matters.  In the UK, we’re just starting to think about how to deal with one of the most complex, divisive and unstable set of social, economic and political problems.  Whatever the toxic views that were peddled about experts in the lead-up to the referendum, we should surely be drawing on all the cognitive resources we can possibly access as we tackle its consequences.  That includes the humanities.  In my recent book, I argue that ‘policy is multi-dimensional, messy, uncertain, ambigious, shifting and contested because so too are the human beliefs, commitments, decisions and interactions at the core of the exercise of power.’  The humanities give us insights into and purchase on the inescapably human dimensions of life – including constitutional crises…

It worries me that in a context where STEM subjects are perceived as the only useful forms of knowledge, science becomes a proxy for the total research base as the impact of Brexit is evaluated and policy responses formulated.  There is an opportunity now for advocacy groups such as Scientists for EU to defend science not just in its own terms, but also as part of a broader collaborative effort to make the case for scholarship and evidence in the broadest sense (even if people in this country had indeed ‘had enough of experts‘ before the vote, they seem to be grasping for expertise now).  And it should be in scientists’ interests that the UK maintains a vibrant mix of intellectual activity.  Dynamic trans-, multi- and interdisciplinary work relies on active, sustainable, ambitious and confident disciplinary cultures.

This agenda also means historians, philosophers and linguists (i.e. all of us humanists) being willing to engage with greater commitment, and to take a platform in the way Scientists for EU have done.  My sense is we have much to learn from the ways they used social media to take an active role in public debate, including tweeting and vlogging on Facebook and Youtube.  We too need to be open to pressing not just for the value of our own fields, but for a genuinely rich ecosystem of enquiry and expertise.

No policy issue is ever purely technical and no one discipline can ever produce all the answers.  As scholars, we need to see science, social science and the arts and humanities as complementary forms of knowledge rather than as competing in some zero-sum policy and funding game.  Advocacy groups have a core purpose in their own domain, but that shouldn’t preclude some timely and targeted joint efforts.  It’s both/and rather than either/or.  Surely now of all moments we should be making common cause?

Complementarity in Higher Education: what does it mean for disciplines?

One of the most important concepts in the Wilson Review of University-Business Collaboration is complementarity – the idea that different institutions with different histories, different cultures, missions and identities, can play roles that support, reinforce and enhance each other in the pursuit of economic as well as social and cultural benefit.

A sector shaped by a sense of collaborative – rather than competitive – advantage would emphasise complementarity, leading universities to recognise and celebrate the strengths of others, and cross-refer businesses to the most appropriate HE partner. The potential prize is a bigger ‘pie’ to share, rather than an increasingly vicious scrap to divide up the existing pastry-encased dish.

This will be the theme for my talk tomorrow at the HE Beyond 2015 conference. In my 20 minutes I will be sticking to the corporate level, but with my new academic role I’m becoming more interested in the disciplinary dimension of policy debates. So when I spoke to the Association of Business Schools policy roundtable last month I suggested there was potential in thinking about issues such as local economic development through the lens of academic subjects. How can disciplines as distinctive forms of knowledge work together in tackling important problems, such as building (economically, socially) sustainable communities, or supporting enterprise and business growth?

Jon Wilson highlighted today at the first of the ippr/King’s Policy Unit seminars on the Future of HE that there’s often a disconnect between how management conceive of and express the purpose of higher education and how academics do so. In theory at least, there is real potential for complementarity between the ‘corporate’ and the ‘academic’ (as a disciplinary practitioner) in areas such as local economic development.

University leaders can set strategy, defining a framework that values engagement with and commitment to local impact in whatever forms fit the institution’s mission and the community’s needs. Subject area leaders such as Heads of School can then use that framework to help structure their thinking in terms of disciplinary activity – not as a constraint on creativity but the opposite, as a license for imagining and reconceiving what forms that academic endeavour could take if inspired by the idea of local impact.

I wonder how often those ‘conversations’ between the corporate and the academic dimensions of university life take place? Or do we instinctively resort to models of irreconcilability between the two? The Wilson Review highlighted the need to challenge outmoded ideas of the unbridgeable cultural divide between universities and business and debunk the myths of the ‘unresponsive university’ and the ‘unreasonable business’. Do we also need to turn our attention inwards and look for greater complementarity between corporate and academic aspirations and endeavours? This is challenging for both parties, but the potential rewards are great.

Most universities seek national and international profile and standing, at least in select areas. These goals can be compatible – not in tension – with significant and multi-faceted engagement at local level; we can be world-class at local impact, and that mission can bring global connections, for example with collaborations in teaching and research.  What is needed is commitment and imagination, both at corporate and at discipline level, to find the points of integration between local and national agendas.

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Afterthought: Does it make those ‘conversations’ easier if the corporate leaders share a disciplinary background with a group of academics?