Enter the new wave wonks

Published: 20 June 2014

There's a chance the UK might leave the EU, presenting a clear opportunity for engagement from some of the UK's higher education institutions. But how can academics play a meaningful role in this space without sacrificing their integrity?

Few subject areas and even fewer researchers are suited to the realities of public debate.

A group of Vice Chancellors from across the spectrum of UK universities recently put their names to a letter in The Times advocating the UK’s continued membership of the EU. The fact that university leaders are entering into policy debates in the pages of national newspapers is not in and of itself novel. After all, we’re used to seeing HE sector representatives make the case for things like university funding and the relaxing of controls on international students. It is slightly unexpected, though, to see such a broad sweep of university leaders enter into such a highly-charged debate in the days running up to an election.

Toni Pearce, the current President of the National Union of Students, last year called on Vice Chancellors to adopt more prominent positions in social and political debate. On first glance, the Times letter would seem to be an example of her call going answered. However, the sentiments in the letter are not based on a profound belief in the value EU membership brings to the nation, but rather the value EU research funding brings to their institutions. We still await the day when VCs regularly offer comment and opinion on policy issues without a direct relationship to the fortunes of their own institutions.

This is perhaps unsurprising. Universities are vast communities made up of academics and students of every shade of opinion. Vice Chancellors are the (official) public face of these communities, and it would be a very brave move to take a strong stance on a contentious public issue. The risks of alienating staff and students who do not share the view are likely to be too high for any issue unrelated to the success of the institution.

However the burdens of collective representation are not felt by academics yet to take on the trappings of executive office. As experts in their respective fields many are very well equipped to comment authoritatively on a range of issues, offering analytical insight that can only enhance the level of debate. Indeed, the requirement for researchers to demonstrate ‘impact’ provides a compelling reason to engage in debates that could influence the direction of policy. Policy making is a messy business though, often informed by political expediency more than the robust evidence academics are used to working with. The question then becomes how to play a meaningful role in this environment without sacrificing academic integrity?

Helping to answer this question requires a different breed of wonk to those that are analysing HE policy and practice in the VC’s office. What’s needed are guides, helping academics to navigate often treacherous political terrain; and interpreters, turning complex research findings into compelling policy messages. We’re starting to see the emergence of a range of models to provide this capacity, with Bath, Salford, Manchester and Newcastle notable examples (full disclosure – my team and I at Linstock have been working with the last two of these).

So how can this new wave of wonks best support public spirited academics? Well first they need to be clear that while academic work itself should be treated as sacrosanct, the way in which it is articulated does not need to be. Academic work is by its very nature nuanced and complex, two concepts not exactly suited to the cut and thrust of public debate. Stripping away superfluous detail and emphasising implications does not infringe upon the integrity of research findings, but does make it easier for the uninitiated to grasp. Likewise, contextualising evidence with a compelling narrative makes it more likely to resonate with a wider range of audiences.

Second, they should be upfront about the open-ended nature of public debate. It’s tempting to think that every argument (about policy or anything else) can be solved with the revelation of a piece of rock solid evidence. The truth is that there is no evidence that can trump emotionally-driven instincts. Any academic who feels that the findings of their research are powerful enough to instantly create a consensus of opinion is destined for disappointment. They should instead look to steer the direction of the public conversation over time, using evidence as the basis for regular interjections through the media and on the Westminster and Whitehall events circuit.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the new wave wonks need to be very canny operators. Few subject areas and even fewer researchers are suited to the realities of public debate. Sometimes this is because a research area is particularly niche, divorced from public interest and political priority. Sometimes the researcher themselves will lack the characteristics needed to join highly charged public debate. And occasionally, wider university priorities will dictate which work gets support and which does not. Disappointed academic staff, wondering why they are not getting the attention others seem to be enjoying, will need to be handled very sensitively.

The journey from university academic to public intellectual is far from straightforward, particularly for those who have already scaled the heights of institutional leadership. The responsibility of representing bodies of such divergent opinion is more than likely to restrict the strength of positions VCs can adopt in public. Meanwhile, while academics lower down the hierarchical chain enjoy far greater freedom; they stand to benefit from some clear-sighted guidance on how to negotiate the often rocky landscape of public debate.

Mark Fuller
Associate Director

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