Posted tagged ‘politicians’

Universities and political elites

July 24, 2017

Politicians, as we discover from time to time, on the whole like social cachet. For men and women ‘of the people’, they often have backgrounds and enjoy privileges that the ‘people’ don’t always get close to. One way of assessing this has often been by looking at what (if any, of course) universities they attended. While the proportion of MPs in the UK House of Commons who are graduates of Oxford and Cambridge has been declining, it is still an extraordinary 23 per cent.

Interestingly, no Scottish constituency returned an Oxbridge-educated MP. A significant proportion graduated from the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, but it is not a outrageously disproportionate number.

For someone looking to pursue a career in politics in the UK, it still seems to make sense to apply to a handful of universities generally (button usefully) described as ‘elite’ universities, That should not be the case, and candidate selection needs to be more focused on this issue (amongst others)

I might add in parentheses that one university that seems to be getting closer to the people politically is Trinity College Dublin, who have recorded their first graduate as Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar. I might suggest that a Dublin City University graduate should be next, and maybe that the next First Minister of Scotland should have studied in Robert Gordon University; but those might not be objective thoughts.

The professor in government?

November 4, 2014

I first developed a strong interest in politics in my early teens. At the time I was living in what was West Germany, and the government was a coalition between the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats. One of the key cabinet ministers was Professor Karl Schiller, who had previously been Head of the Economics Faculty of the University of Hamburg.

Fast forward to 2009. In its issue of January 16 of that year, the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education reported that ‘President-elect [as he then was] Obama’s transition team is raiding university faculties as it races to fill … jobs in the federal government’.  Some of those who had been headhunted included the Dean of the Harvard Law School (Solicitor-General), a Professor of Journalism at Ohio University (chief White House photographer), the Director of a Research Centre at George Washington University – and even the then new CIA Director (though he may in the past have been a Congressman and a White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton) had most recently been a professor at California State University in Monterey. The Chronicle suggested that ‘hundreds’ of academics would end up in government or in government agencies under the Obama administration.

Such a strong academic presence in government is not something we expect in these islands, in part because the career path for politicians is wholly different. Many frontline politicians graduate to that status from local government or from one of the professions (lawyers, accountants, consultants etc), whereas in many other countries there is much greater diversity of background. It is perhaps worth noting, however, that in Ireland there have been some prominent academic politicians: Garrett FitzGerald (Fine Gael and of course Taoiseach), Martin O’Donoghue, President Michael D. Higgins spring to mind. But despite that, academic politicians have been few and far between, and even political advisers have not on the whole been from the university world. In Britain I cannot immediately think of any academics who became frontline politicians, though readers may be able to correct me.

I suspect that this has been to the disadvantage both of politics and academia, as it has tended to keep principle and theory out of government and political reality out of academic circles, at least to some extent. So as not to be misunderstood, I am not suggesting that government should be dominated by academics, but some academic presence would probably be helpful, and would also make the workings and benefits of the universities more familiar to politicians. The gap in understanding between the two professions, which sometimes has consequences in government policy on higher education, might not be so pronounced.

Of course the opportunities for such involvement will remain few for as long as the politicians move along their current career paths. But maybe it would be a good idea to raise some questions around that anyway.

If you’re passing our laws, do we want you to be educated?

June 14, 2011

When I worked in Trinity College Dublin, every time a member of the Irish government took an interest in a higher education issue, we tended to remind ourselves where he or she went to university. If they were graduates, the chances were that it was of University College Dublin (or more rarely, Cork or Galway). Almost never TCD, which until relatively recently had been ‘banned’ by the Roman Catholic Church.  So we often wondered whether the ministers would be tempted to give special support to their alma mater – which was almost never us.

During the last ten years in DCU it was, in some ways, the same thing. As a very new university we had no graduates in government. But then again it was not the same, because we were active in areas that were close to the politicians’ hearts, and I have to say we received some strong political backing across all parties. I never felt we were disadvantaged. But I remember a local councillor once saying that we should not in any case want all the politicians to be graduates, because if they were, how could they truly represent all those disadvantaged constituents without degrees. A fair point?

Now, the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education has analysed the higher education background (or in some cases, lack of one) of America’s state and national legislators. They have found that state legislators have varied backgrounds that, while not precisely reflecting those of their constituents, at least are not fundamentally different; most are graduates, but some are not, and the degrees they may have are awarded by an interesting variety of institutions. Federal legislators – members of Congress and Senators – on the other hand are overwhelmingly likely to be graduates of leading universities or have higher degrees.

It’s a tricky issue. Politics at the highest level is not an amateur pursuit, or should not be. We really should not be saying that what we offer as educators is not important enough for us to want our politicians to have it. But then again, we should not want our politicians to see themselves as members of en elite. So how should we, as higher education institutions, present ourselves in this matter?

I think we should want our politicians to be educated, to the greatest possible degree. But I think we should ensure that our universities and colleges are places for the people, all of them, even those that won’t proceed to a degree there. We should be places that welcome all members of the community, and we should have both events and facilities that are there for them. We should provide access to those wanting to use sports facilities, or catering facilities, or occasional lectures, workshops and courses. We should want to welcome the very young and the very old. If we do that, then our association with national decision-makers will seem right.

Why do our politicians not understand higher education? What can we do about it?

March 8, 2011

As noted yesterday, in Ireland a new government not even yet in office has set out its higher education stall, and from an academic perspective it isn’t pretty. There are no signs in the Fine Gael/Labour programme for government (Government for National Recovery 2011-2016) that the parties put much thought into the higher education elements, and it appears that are influenced by the general view that universities and colleges need to be centrally coordinated and controlled, and that the traditional way of arranging academic work and careers won’t do any more.

But Irish politicians are not unique. Across the English-speaking world in particular right now, governments are discovering a new enthusiasm to intervene directly in higher education. Partly this may be a product of the recession, as governments cannot afford to fund colleges, but feel they need to be seen to be ‘doing something’ about them. At that point it is particularly attractive to suggest that the institutions don’t need so much money anyway, and that with proper state supervision they can make big savings.

Ironically this trend of bureaucratisation as we experience it here is the opposite of what is happening in countries that in the past used to exercise tighter controls. In places as diverse as Germany and China restrictions are being lifted, in the belief that more autonomous universities perform better. Universities are being encouraged to determine their own focus and direction, and to plan strategically.

In the meantime, over here governments appear to believe that what has been holding back the universities is too little control. So the politicians and officials want to determine the shape of the sector, the correct number of institutions, the appropriate terms and conditions of academic and other employment, the academic areas they should address, and the search for sources of income other than the taxpayer. They believe that there needs to be more accountability, by which they actually mean more reviews, audits and paperwork. They feel that public criticism of universities encourages them to be more excellent. And they believe all of this without ever feeling the need to present a shred of evidence to support it beyond a few anecdotes.

So, are the universities all helpless victims of political myopia? No, that’s too simplistic. In many ways they have reinforced these beliefs, though perhaps not deliberately or consciously. Top of the list of opportunities missed has been their reluctance to be more transparent. Ask a university representative how many hours staff work, or what the money is being spent on, or what standards today’s students achieve, or what the impact of university research is for society, and chances are you’ll get a complex and often impenetrable response. But nowadays everyone wants to have everything measured, while universities have often preferred a kind of intellectual vagueness. This is the age of accountability, and if you look like the one group in society that wants to escape from that, you will come under attack.

Also, if governments sometimes have unrealistic expectations of universities as instruments of economics and trade, some academics can come across as unnecessarily hostile to the idea that universities stimulate economic growth and investment. Of course university programmes should not be designed just to meet an economic agenda, but equally it is clear that universities, sometimes just by being there, are engines of growth – something that should be welcomed.

Politicians will determine our fate. We need to work with them, and to negotiate a modus vivendi with them. If we say, rightly, that policy needs to be formulated on the back of evidence, we too must be prepared to provide it. It is time for the academic community to be more effective in its own defence, so that the conditions that really do generate excellence can be protected, alongside the change and reform that we also need to contemplate. And once we do that, it is time for the politicians to listen.