By Paul Temple
I teach an MA session at the Institute of Education called “The University in the Knowledge Economy”. We canter through the history, starting with a few reflections on the medieval university, going on to consider the development of science in nineteenth-century Germany, noting Bush’s 1945 Science – the Endless Frontier report, examining Bell’s seminal 1973 The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, and coming up to date with references to theorists such as Stehr and the policy statements to be found in any British White Paper on higher education in recent decades, or in any comparable European Commission report. My no doubt predictable thesis is that the university has steadily assumed an increasingly dominant place in knowledge production and transfer in modern societies; and that this has certain implications for the ways in which universities should be planned and managed.
But I’m now beginning to think that this rather Whig approach is looking painfully complacent. The development of knowledge economies seems to have had the effect of producing deep social divisions that are only now becoming obvious – the Brexit vote here, Trump in the US, Le Pen in France, and so on. What was widely thought to be an unarguable good – more knowledge, used in new ways – is turning out to have some troubling consequences. It doesn’t have to be like this, of course, but the understandable grievances of those left behind by the knowledge economy – stuck in the knowledge gap, between old ways of working and the new economy – have been both overlooked by otherwise progressive politicians and then ruthlessly exploited by cynical ones. Do we now have “knowledge Britain” and an “anti-knowledge Britain”, to set alongside the “locals vs cosmopolitans” and the “somewheres vs anywheres” divisions? Have those of us working in knowledge businesses assumed too easily that most people were seeing the world from a vaguely similar vantage point to our own?
Universities have got some questions to answer here. If they have done such a wonderful job in creating and transmitting knowledge, then how come the quarter-baked ideas about how a modern economy works (“balancing the books” and so on, as if the national economy were a corner shop) have the currency that they apparently do? How come that the benefits of a single market for goods and services, explained in shelves-full of economics textbooks, have so little political traction? How come that the intellectually discredited idea of grammar schools is still thought to be worth even discussing? (The bitter irony here is that the idea does rest on research – mistaken when not actually bogus – on IQs.)
The idea of the knowledge economy or society seemed not to figure at all in the recent general election campaign. Actually, you could argue that the Conservative campaign’s vision of taking Britain back to the 1950s – Brexit, grammar schools, fewer foreigners, fox hunting – was an anti-knowledge one, designed to cut Britain off from the cultural and economic links on which its knowledge base (and much else) depends while at the same time deepening internal divisions. Accordingly, my feelings towards my fellow citizens became markedly warmer in the early hours of 9 June, when it became apparent that this approach had met with something less than universal acclamation.
At HEPI’s “Policy Briefing Day” in April, a former ministerial special adviser apparently suggested that “universities tailor their priorities to fit the Government’s expressed goal of ensuring the UK’s departure from the EU is a success” (translation: don’t cause trouble, get on side, or else). I suggest that the task confronting universities goes beyond helping the government to manage its Brexit damage-limitation project: it is about working to close the national knowledge gap and in doing so saying, loudly and clearly, that some ideas are just plain wrong.
SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.