In a somewhat downbeat (but realistic) assessment of the state of Irish universities and colleges, the outgoing chair of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, John Hennessy, laments that there are ‘no votes’ in higher education. Politicians won’t take the decisions they should take, he may be suggesting, because they are not under any pressure from the electorate.
While understanding where he is coming from, it is nevertheless not necessarily a correct assessment. There are many votes in higher education, but they tend to converge on certain issues that are hot buttons with the public. Tuition fees are an example: politicians know they will draw the wrath of the middle classes if they abandon free tuition, and so generally they don’t. And then of course there are the local higher education issues: ask any politician from the South-East of Ireland whether higher education is an electoral issue, and you will certainly hear all about the case for a university in the region.
Nor is this confined to Ireland. In advance of the last UK general election, there was an interesting analysis in the Guardian newspaper about the higher education issues in England that would potentially have an impact on the vote. Indeed many people would suggest that the near-collapse in the vote for the Liberal Democrats was caused by their higher education policies. In the meantime in the United States student debt is gaining status as a key election issue.
The problem for universities is not that politicians aren’t interested and that voters don’t care. Rather it is that voters don’t much care about the key issue that drives much else: higher education funding. The narrative that has undermined much of higher education is that quality and global competitiveness can be achieved and maintained without anyone having to pay much for it, and that in any case there is too much waste in the system. There is little evidence that voters are concerned, for example, about institutional slippage in global university rankings. Politicians understand what voters care about and so they tend to those issues; and sometimes neglect the issues that really determine the success of a national higher education system.
Universities do register with politicians and voters; but not always in the way they would like. They will need to work out how to re-balance the political narrative, and how to do that in partnership (rather than in conflict) with the key politicians.