Signals in the storm: Higher education, digital communication and geo-politics – CGHE’s 300th seminar/webinar
16th June 2022 : 14:00 - 15:00
Speaker: Simon Marginson, University of Oxford; Claire Callender, IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society and Birkbeck; Diana Laurillard, IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society; CHAIR: David Mills, University of Oxford
Location: Zoom webinar, registration required
We live in tumultuous times and unexpected global shocks are succeeding each other at shorter and shorter intervals. As soon as the pandemic began to recede war erupted in Ukraine. Worse, our governmental and political systems seem ill-equipped to lead successive responses, and bring populations with them towards constructive solutions. As we move closer to the heart of the storm, there are three variables in play: (1) higher education/knowledge, (2) states and geo-politics, and (3) digital futures. What mix will emerge and what will be the resulting possibilities and consequences, for not just the multiple missions of higher education but for societies across the world?
In a disordered world facing challenges on many fronts, higher education, knowledge and graduate citizenship have never been more important. Higher education is uneven, country by country, but it has become a great collaborative sector capable of fostering and supporting cooperative networks at scale, augmented by digital media. Higher education can educate whole populations in the values, practices, knowledge and skills needed to effectively tackle common problems. At the same time, research science and social science are absolutely vital if we are to begin to turn around climate change. Yet higher education and knowledge, especially science, are themselves under growing pressure amid populist politics in many countries (e.g. United States, UK, India, Brazil and much of Europe), many governments are moving to secure closer control over higher education (e.g. the above list plus Russia, Hungary, Turkey, China and more) – not because higher education is defective, but for political reasons of their own. At the same time, significant parts of research collaboration and international student mobility, already affected by the pandemic (especially student mobility), are being trashed and thrown aside by global geo-politics.
Yet who cares? Who is really looking after higher education? It has become normal for at least some governments to see higher education simply as an opportunity to build populist support for themselves through divisive ‘culture wars’, and as a means of shifting responsibility for social outcomes. In the UK it seems that ‘levelling up’ in higher education means reducing opportunities for first generation students in economically deprived areas whose institutions offer so-called ‘low value’ courses, as measured by graduate salaries. ‘Employability’ as currently interpreted makes higher education responsible for job creation in the economy. Higher education has not been directly blamed for galloping inflation (yet) but in UK it is already associated with the blow out in the cost of graduate debt triggered by the link between debt and the retail price index, which puts it in the firing line.
Authoritarian and irresponsible government renders the sector more vulnerable to geo-politics, where pressures are mounting. In UK Brexit has dramatically reduced staff and student movement and research cooperation between UK and continental Europe. In numerous countries student mobility is threatened by government and/or populism (e.g. reductions in international students in Denmark) or visa restrictions (e.g. Chinese doctoral students entering the United States). The determination of the US to retain global supremacy over China has triggered a new era of securitisation in science and technology, threatening to reduce research linkages between China and all Euro-American countries, with grim implications for cooperation on global pandemics, climate change, and food and water. There has been racialised persecution of American-based scientists with Chinese names. Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court decision on rights to abortion (the reversal of Roe v. Wade), signifying the growing power of fundamentalist pre-scientific religion in that country, bodes ill for science, already under growing attack from populist politicians controlled by the fossil fuel industry. Big oil and gas finance armies of trolls perpetuating false claims on social media. Digital society has tremendous potential for both good and ill. Can it become consolidated as a medium of truth and education, rather than hatred, lies and dumbing down at scale? Meanwhile war has returned to Europe, and as a result Russia junked its policy of building internationalised science and repressed public activism in its universities – while higher education and research in Ukraine have been completely halted in some areas, with many students and academics forced to flee the country.
At CGHE’s 300th seminar/webinar, Simon Marginson will review the deteriorating political environment in which national and international higher education sits, and consider the medium term challenges that this poses. He will argue that the situation requires a renewed focus on academic autonomy and knowledge freedoms; a willingness of research universities in particular to sustain cross-border cooperation, if necessary, outside the nation-state system; and the development of common formal protocols to facilitate this cooperation. Diana Laurillard will argue for a new role for universities in strengthening their collective power to make the world a better place, in ways envisaged in so many of our mission statements. She will propose that we set out to harness the positive opportunities of digital technologies to the cause of engaging researchers with their professional end users in collaborative knowledge development and innovative practices. Claire Callender will explore the changing nature of the relationship between higher education, the state, and the market using England as a case study. She too will argue that the state is increasingly encroaching on higher education and that such encroachments need to be challenged by the sector. A lively Q&A discussion is guaranteed!
This webinar is part of the free public seminar programme hosted by the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE).