The debate about universities in the last few days has been extremely frustrating. Britain has the two best universities in the world, according to The Times Higher Education rankings, and five of the top 25. This should be a cause for national celebration. Politicians should be seeking to build on this strength, not doing anything to undermine it. But instead, MPs on both the left and the right are behaving in reckless and irresponsible ways.
Oxford is the best university in the world. But a former universities minister, David Lammy, the shadow Education Secretary, the Tory chair of the Education Select Committee and 100-odd other MPs want to massively interfere in how it is run. They want Oxford to move to a more centralised admissions system. This would undermine the college system and break the vital link between those who admit students and those who teach them. Such a move would destroy one of the things that makes Oxford such a great university. The arrogance of these MPs in telling the best university in the world how to organise itself is as breathtaking as it is depressing.
Then, there is Chris Heaton-Harris’s dumb and ill though-out request for the details of those teaching Brexit-related courses. Sending a letter on House of Commons letterhead asking for such information was always going to be seen as intimidating, as anyone with an ounce of common sense could have predicted. It was also always going to lead to the kind of ‘culture war’ confrontation that we’ve seen in the last few days; just look at today’s Daily Mail.
It would be silly to deny that academia doesn’t tilt to the cosmopolitan left. Making the case for Leave at an Oxford high table was a lonely affair. But any government attempt to cure this imbalance would be far worse than the disease. No one should want MPs poring over university course schedules, working out who should teach what. Those on the centre-right should console themselves that the tilt of academia means that university is the equivalent of altitude training for young people who share their views. It sends them out into the world prepared to make their case to all comers.
The path to a successful, post-Brexit economy runs through our universities. Government should be giving them the research funding they need, an immigration system that enables them to attract the best researches from around the world and striving to build up a British venture capital market that’d ensure that more of the things that are invented here, are built here. These policies would help universities and help Britain make a success of Brexit.