Political trends vs. universities and regions

Three recent perspectives foresee important roles for universities and cities

How might universities and city regions respond to the rifts in the population and apparent rise of populism exposed by Trump and Brexit? From the cacophony of reporting on the consequences of the political events of 2016, three recent perspectives caught my eye. All emphasise the need to better understand the roles of regions and universities.

Cities and bottom-up innovation

Bruce Katz calls for cities and metropolitan areas to power the United States forward under a Trump administration:

A wide range of policies relating to taxes, trade, the environment, immigration, infrastructure, and health care seem likely to be upended. But some things will stay the same—metropolitan areas will continue to drive our national economy forward, and they will remain the geographies most capable of bridging the partisan divisions that plague our national politics. In both of these respects, local leadership will now be more important than ever…

Over the next several years, the hard business of investing in the future and uniting the nation will not be conducted in Washington. Rather it will occur in our localities, where leaders and residents in our cities, suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas will work together to find common ground and purpose.

Universities as the main links between nations

Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit look to history:

Will we see again a de-Europeanization and nationalization of higher education in Europe emerging, in the light of greater criticism of European integration, the growth of nationalist populist movements, and tensions between Russia and western Europe and the United States?

Academic cooperation and exchange have been in many cases, including during the Cold War, the main relations between nations: they continued to take place and even were stimulated so as to pave the way for further contacts. We have to learn from these lessons. International higher education is substantially different from earlier historical periods, as well as from the Cold War. Its scope is also different, with increasing political and academic power influences from other regions of the world, especially Asia. But, even though we should be realistic that international cooperation and exchange are not guarantees for peace and mutual understanding, they continue to be essential mechanisms for keeping communication open and dialogue active.

A resurgence of regional enterprise

An editorial in Regional Studies provides an unusually speculative forecast for an academic journal (the piece is worth reading in full):

The implications for cities and regions of the fracturing of the international order are highly uncertain. Resurgent popular nationalism would have profound consequences for all territories by inhibiting foreign direct investment (FDI), external trade and access to scarce skills, and forcing more reliance on local capabilities and domestic production. Some argue that a reversal of globalization would dampen economic progress and suppress opportunities for the world’s poorest places and populations. Alternatively, patriotic impulses that challenge ossified structures and global cartels could provoke a resurgence of regional enterprise and organic growth. Well-conceived policy reforms that disrupt business inertia could engender another Schumpeterian wave of innovation and creativity based on smaller-scale production. Dynamic regional multipliers might be spurred by efforts to localize resource flows so as to secure the supply of food and scarce materials, to cut energy consumption and to regenerate degraded ecosystems. Enhanced democratic constraints on business short-termism may also curb financial speculation and encourage longer-term investment in the real economy.

Furthermore, international disengagement might serve to bolster local and regional identities and renew a sense of place and belonging. This could elevate the obligations on civic leaders and rebuild confidence in the role of city and regional institutions. Against this, heightened perceptions of fear and insecurity could foster a ‘new tribalism’ through separatist movements, ethnic tensions, insurgent splinter groups and other inward-looking forces that escalate conflict and pull countries and regions apart. Much depends on whether democratic institutions are capable of responding to the genuine concerns of citizens and can meld different interests and values together in pursuit of shared agendas and collective solutions. Meanwhile, if the Paris climate deal leads to restrictions on fossil fuel extraction in favour of clean energy, this could make many regions reliant on oil, gas and coal reserves vulnerable to stranded assets and obsolete power generation systems. The case for regional studies is accentuated rather than diminished in all these scenarios. Systematic analyses of how different territories are adapting to the unravelling of globalization and introducing more holistic and resilient strategies to cope with the turbulence are urgently needed.

In other news, I have written a short piece for KPMG on a new era of university-city partnerships. A longer piece will follow later this year.

The difference 33 years can make

The returns to primary education (whether social or private) are the highest among all educational levels… Top priority should be given to primary education as a form of human resource investment.
Psacharopoulos, 1981, p.326, p.333

Such studies had considerable influence at the World Bank and contributed to a reduction in funding for higher education in many countries. Fast forward 33 years:

[T]here is evidence to suggest that [tertiary education] may provide greater impact on economic growth than lower levels of education… [Tertiary education] contributes to the strengthening of institutions, and the forming of professionals in key areas, such as education and healthcare. The diverse functions of the university, in addition to its direct impact on economic growth, should be acknowledged and supported.
Oketch et al, 2014, p.8

Today higher education is featured in the Sustainable Development Goals, including targets on access to affordable and quality university education and increasing the number of scholarships to low income countries. Notably absent in the Millennium Development Goals, these targets follow a renewed acceptance of the role higher education can play in overall development, even for the poorest countries.

Of course it would be a mistake to drive policy solely by measuring economic returns, or to view primary, secondary or tertiary education in isolation. Education is a continuum, and higher education has a role to play in strengthening the stages that come before it, not least through teacher training. Nonetheless, 33 years can make quite a difference.

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History, policy and development

In policy both the medium and long term are often sacrificed in favour of the short term

Having studied both history and international development, I’m always interested in work that bridges the two. ‘History, Historians and Development Policy’ fits the bill perfectly. One of the many valuable lessons to draw from such work is the importance of taking a long term view:

…history brings a particular kind of perspective to development problems – it is a vantage point for framing and viewing the nature of development which is relatively long term and comparative, while also paying full attention to, and not shying away from, critical issues of power, contestation and conflict. (p.16)

In policy both the medium and long term views are often sacrificed in favour of the short term, for example the apparent willingness to erase the institutional memory on higher education within government. Although this rarely results in colossal blunders, it clearly hinders effective learning and can engender cynicism in those on the receiving end.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is an interesting exercise to free ourselves from the short and medium term and think ultra long term. For example, this piece argues that ‘megacities, not nations, are the world’s dominant, enduring social structures’, and that cities have outlasted all ‘empires and nations over which they have presided’. If we were to frame development in terms of cities (and the towns in their orbit and the spaces that separate them) rather than nations, how would this affect policy? And would, for example, universities in those cities change their strategies? (I’ll look at this next week).

We should welcome historians into policymaking. The excellent History & Policy site attempts to do just that. An essay from 2010 on ‘The ‘Idea of a University’ today’ concludes:

If we seek guidance from the past, it is better to see the ‘idea of the university’ not as a fixed set of characteristics, but as a set of tensions, permanently present, but resolved differently according to time and place. Tensions between teaching and research, and between autonomy and accountability, most obviously. But also between universities’ membership of an international scholarly community, and their role in shaping national cultures and forming national identity; between the transmission of established knowledge, and the search for original truth; between the inevitable connection of universities with the state and the centres of economic and social power, and the need to maintain critical distance; between reproducing the existing occupational structure, and renewing it from below by promoting social mobility; between serving the economy, and providing a space free from immediate utilitarian pressures; between teaching as the encouragement of open and critical attitudes, and society’s expectation that universities will impart qualifications and skills. To come down too heavily on one side of these balances will usually mean that the aims of the university are being simplified and distorted.

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