SPEAKER: Dr. Peter Scott (UCL Institute of Education, London, U.K; Editor of the Time Higher Education Supplement)
EVENT: 2017 Worldviews Lecture on Media and Higher Education
Populism and the Academy: On the "Wrong Side" of History
The election of Donald Trump as US President in November 2016 and the vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union five months earlier have highlighted the difficulties universities face in coming to terms with a rising tide of populism.
We face three problems. First, the majority of college educated citizens in the US supported Hillary Clinton and in the UK voted to remain in the EU - and in both cases ended up on the losing side. Second, despite the demand for more ‘evidence based’ policy (to which university based research is the major contributor), expertise is being trumped by emotion (some would prefer a less charitable label - such as ‘lies’). Indeed, the distrust of ‘experts’ is palpable. Third, and most menacing, higher education seems to have been bracketed with those other global elites, political and financial, which have been the target of populist revolt. It has almost felt in the past 12 months that we have ended up on the ‘wrong side’ of history.
Maybe it is partly universities’ fault. In many countries the strong sense of social purpose, and expanding opportunities to new social groups and disadvantaged communities, has been diluted by the drive towards becoming ‘world-class’. It is hardly surprising that talk of being in the ‘top 100’ turns off those left behind , including the middle classes coping with the aftermath of a global financial and economic crisis in which the perpetrators have not only gone unpunished but seem more dominant than ever. Even when universities were trying to reach out to new, and less advantaged groups, they were not always very successful. At times mass higher education seems to have entrenched rather than eroded the privileges of the already fortunate. Now - perhaps - we are not even trying very hard. Maybe the rise of populism is a welcome call - not just to speak up more loudly for open societies, but also to recover that sense of social purpose we are in danger of losing.