The Society for Research into Higher Education

Paul Temple

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Let the sunshine in! – no, hang on…

By Paul Temple

I’m walking through central London on a bright, warm, sunny day, people sitting outside at pavement cafes, and I’m thinking, this is nice – then thinking, this isn’t nice at all, this is February, the temperature shouldn’t be in the low 20s. Sunshine – oh, the irony for people on a damp, cloudy, island in the North Atlantic – is now a further unwelcome reminder that my generation has comprehensively failed in its – our – responsibility for the biggest problem, by far, facing us all. There is no technological fix for climate change that is even remotely in sight. Nor can I see a way of evading our responsibility: our generation, the baby-boomers, was of voting age – to set the bar at its lowest – when the damage that humans were doing to the climate became apparent in the later twentieth-century; and nothing much was done.

The evidence mostly wasn’t available for our parents to act on; and the die was already cast (a lot of global warming now being “baked-in”, to use the unfortunate metaphor popular with climate scientists) by the time the generation after us reached voting age. So responsibility for the state of the planet around the turn of the next century, maybe much sooner (and it’s hard to find an informed estimate that isn’t somewhere between unbelievably terrible and plain apocalyptic), rests squarely with us. I’m glad I won’t be around to have to try to explain how we managed to make such a mess of things.

If universities can’t help with what now seems to be mainly a damage-limitation exercise, I’m inclined to think that we should just pack up and go home. The more positive view, presented cogently by Neil Harrison in his 20 February SRHE blog, is that: “We need to reoccupy public spaces and reassert our expertise …. Why would someone want to spend valuable time that could be spent on developing further expertise in dialogue with those seeking to undermine their authority from a position of relative ignorance? … However, this impulse to disengage must be resisted, with educators needing to reassert their expertise in public forums … Relevance can only be rediscovered by finding new ways of working together to reapply our expertise to the world’s wicked problems.”

And while resisting the huge temptation to say “I told you so” to the climate-deniers and climate-delayers (“Yes, we must act, but not just yet…”), universities are in a uniquely strong position to press for global action. They possess both the necessary knowledge base and a non-partisan status. The actions needed are, however, going to be uniquely difficult politically – though perhaps less so as the decades pass and coastal cities flood (see the Environment Agency’s handwringing about the expected future ineffectiveness of the Thames Barrier) and the equatorial belt becomes uninhabitable, driving mass migration. But universities, certainly in Britain, have been notably timid in speaking truth to power, even where the research evidence is overwhelming.

Take an education example: the empirical case against selection at 11+ is as unarguable as anything can be in social research, but I think many parents could be forgiven for assuming that a grammar school/other divide reflects some kind of natural educational order. Have I missed hearing our university leaders saying, minister, your schools policy is just plain wrong? If universities, individually or collectively, can’t make a powerful public case for policy change where the rock-solid research evidence shows that everyone will benefit, what chance is there of them engaging in a difficult debate where politicians need to tell people that they have to put up with uncongenial changes for the benefit of their grand-children?

I really do hope that I’m being far too pessimistic, and that Neil Harrison’s call to arms will be answered by academics taking the fight to public forums and to politicians with the full backing of their vice-chancellors and universities. But if university leaders don’t rally round, well, it’s not the end of the world. Oh, sorry, it is, isn’t it?

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.