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The fire beneath our feet

The Brexit revolution forces universities to fight for democracy or risk being delegitimised, says William Cullerne Bown.

Research Fortnight has always had a quietly patriotic purpose, our first editorial seeking to bring academia, industry and government together in the national interest. Perhaps in the 25 years that we have published on paper we have helped nudge things a bit in that direction.

But whatever we, and more importantly researchers, have achieved, it all feels pretty pointless now. For today we have a government that is ripping it all up. Just look at the car industry. After 40 years, the Japanese are leaving.

Ultimately, Nissan, Toyota and Honda are not withdrawing because of concern over post-Brexit trading conditions, but because the UK government is no longer a trustworthy partner. This illustrates the general point that if we go looking for the source of our problems we are forced to dig far beneath innovation policy. The state is failing.

Ivan Rogers, formerly the UK’s top civil servant in Brussels and hardly prone to wild language, calls Brexit “a revolutionary moment”. We are in a constitutional crisis created by a combination of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a perverse referendum and the prime minister’s decision to anoint herself a servant of the people rather than parliament.

Revolutionaries seek to exclude and control anyone whose views are awkward. Hence Boris Johnson’s reported “fuck business” comment. Hence the disparaging of “experts” in the 2016 referendum. Hence Brexit minister Chris Heaton-Harris’s attempt to impose political correctness on university teaching of European affairs.

All this goes to the heart of academia’s role in the public square. Revolutionary purity is at odds with the process of challenge and enquiry championed by chief scientific advisers and intrinsic to the public role of academics. In short, the Brexit revolution delegitimises academia.

This is very far from being a uniquely British thing. It has echoes of the ongoing Republican War on Science—to quote the title of Chris Mooney’s 2005 book—in the United States and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s campaign against the Central European University in Budapest. It is part of a tapestry of right-wing populism across the West.

How should academia respond? In the US, the state of party politics makes any aspect difficult. Here, it is one step less problematic in that no party except the UK Independence Party, currently on 7 per cent in the polls, is explicitly a Brexit party, as the actions of former Conservative research ministers David Willetts, Jo Johnson and Sam Gyimah demonstrate. Still, for universities as institutions to confront the Vote Leave campaign and its inheritors in a battle for legitimacy would be unprecedented.

So, as it stands, each individual academic is left to find their own way. Such reliance on individuals, however, is dangerously constrained. Perhaps it is safer for universities as institutions that way, but it is not safer for our democracy.

In the past, experts worked in many different locations. Karl Marx spent a lot of his time as a journalist. Charles Darwin was an independently wealthy country gentleman. Now, however, universities have swallowed almost all expertise.

The result is that if academia accepts its exclusion from the public square, reason itself is driven out. We will be left with an elective dictatorship, a tyranny of the executive. Universities are, in part, a form of nation building and in such circumstances we need them to lean in and self-consciously strengthen their role as a pillar of democracy, whatever the opinions of the ministers of the day.

So, in my view, academia needs to begin exploring collective forms of action through which to contest its delegitimisation. There is a great deal of conceptual and organisational space in between direct confrontation and doing nothing.

The obvious institutional agent is the vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, but its recent strategic plan shows that ambition there is currently limited to “civic impact”. It should think about how it can do more, to demonstrate that John Holmwood was wrong when he wrote for the Campaign for a Public University after the adoption of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, “In effect, the only functions that are now recognised for universities—whether by policymakers or senior university leaders—are the development of human capital and the enhancement of economic growth.”

At the same time, there is nothing to stop academics themselves, individual institutions and existing networks, from considering how they might come together.

Research Fortnight was born in a simpler time. In another universe, where our politics had not become so toxic, I might have looked back over the decades and considered the effect of the web on our reporting. But as the paper edition gives way to the wonderful online flipbook, we cannot ignore the fire beneath our feet.

William Cullerne Bown is founder and former proprietor of Research Fortnight.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight