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Divided by a common language

Donald Trump’s victorious US presidential campaign makes it ever more important to protect university autonomy in the UK.

The people have spoken. On 8 November almost half of America voted for Donald Trump to become the next US president, following an acrimonious and deeply divisive election campaign.

In his first speech as president elect, Trump pledged that “the forgotten men and women of this country will be forgotten no longer”. His promise echoed Theresa May’s vow, made in July during her first speech as prime minister of the UK, to “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”.

May’s words also followed a similarly divisive campaign, which culminated in a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the European Union. During the campaign, those arguing for the nation to leave asserted that the British people “have had enough of experts”. With hindsight, they were right.

Trump’s forgotten men and women, and May’s “ordinary working class families”, are those who have been left behind by globalisation. In the UK, they are the unemployed whom Norman Tebbit, a former Conservative party chairman, suggested should get on their bikes and look for work back in 1981. They are those who don’t have the luxury of employing a competent and cheap Polish plumber. They are those whose income from plumbing has been eroded by the competition. They are those who have watched the rich become ever richer, and who have waited in vain for the rising tide to lift their boats.

Their rising anger coincides with the continued depletion of traditional media and a deterioration in the ability of journalists to hold the powerful to account, draw attention to corruption and to sift fact from fiction. With both the US presidential campaign and lobbying prior to the Brexit vote, the internet was awash with stories that were untrue but which confirmed people’s prejudices and were accepted as fact. How can democracy function in a society in which people cannot agree on the basics?

The roar of those who voted for Trump or for Brexit is a narrative that favours personal experience over national interest. It denies objective truth and suggests that facts are irrelevant. Anecdote overwhelms evidence. Anti-intellectualism trumps expertise.

So where does today’s politics leave higher education? In a rather precarious place. Just as academics seek to understand the new world order and to engage with those who cast their votes so decisively, their institutional autonomy is imperilled.

When expertise is damned, the damage can quickly spread beyond individuals to institutions. When people are sick of experts, they are sick of ivory towers, too. And if universities reckon they can rely on politicians to protect them, they are mistaken. Politicians of all hues agree: at an event held last month at King’s College London, Charles Clarke, a former home secretary, and David Willetts, a former universities minister, concurred that politicians view the arguments advanced by university leaders as utterly self-interested and that they “don’t have as many friends as they think they have in the Commons”. Indeed fewer than one in six MPs has a university in their constituency.

This rise of anti-intellectualism comes at a dangerous time for British universities, as it coincides with a government attempt that, viewed charitably, seeks to help new providers of higher education to enter the market by supposedly levelling the playing field between existing universities and new ones. It proposes to do so by removing the protections that existing universities have and which new entrants do not.

The government proposes to create an Office for Students that would have the power to remove the ability of any higher education provider in England to call itself a university. This power would override the royal charters that have protected many universities from government interference since before the rise of the modern state, and many more since the evolution of democracy. It would trump any previous act of parliament that established a university. It would, at a stroke, undo the centuries of autonomy that have allowed the British university system to become one of the best in the world.

The higher education and research bill that is before parliament also seeks to revoke the royal charters of the research councils. The body replacing the research councils, UK Research and Innovation, would not be governed by a royal charter.

Jo Johnson, the present minister for universities and science, has characterised the changes as minor and as a tidying-up exercise. University leaders have kept silent, keen not to antagonise the government at a time when universities are trying to negotiate the happiest possible outcome from Brexit alongside the ability to raise tuition fees once again in England.

A citizen’s ability to learn, discover and invent without being told what to do by the state has been fundamental to the nation’s economic, cultural, scientific and diplomatic success for centuries.

Yet the changes proposed by Johnson are far from trivial. If passed in its present form, the bill would allow future ministers to dictate what was taught in universities and to direct the research undertaken there.

At a time when the world order is changing, that is a dangerous proposition. It is one that is being ignored as university leaders concentrate on their short-term and medium-term financial health, while neglecting the bigger picture. If the higher education and research bill is passed without amendment, then it will allow the British equivalent of a future President Trump to dictate what happens in universities.

The bill is about to pass from the Commons into the Lords. Thankfully many peers treasure the best interests of higher education. University presidents and vice-chancellors need to reflect why it is that, at a time when politics is so febrile, it falls to an outdated elite to protect the institutional structures that support their and their institution’s academic freedom.

Alison Goddard is the editor of HE.