Geraldine Van Bueren: Britain needs academics to give policy advice

Why are British universities, unlike those in the United States, South Africa and other countries, so marginal when it comes to giving advice on public policy? Although it is clearly in the national interest that academics should share their expertise with the public, their policy advice does not attract the government funding that universities need.

If ministers are to achieve their target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education by 2010, universities clearly have to attract these young people, not just by building student halls with swimming pools but by becoming more visibly central to British political life. The paucity of university contributions to public life, however, is likely to continue, because the proposed criteria for government funding does not include political policy advice.

As a result there will continue to be a lack of incentive – and even many disincentives – for academics to take part in public debates. There is also the risk that universities will, of necessity, continue to react more to public policy than originate it.

It is no coincidence that the expansion of think tanks in Britain has coincided with the retreat of universities from political debate, as higher education institutions have had to focus more on writing peer reviewed publications in order to survive.

Think tanks have valuable roles to play, but are created to explore life from party political perspectives, so that the Institute of Public Policy Research has long been associated with the Labour Government, the Centre for Policy Studies with the Conservatives and CentreForum the Liberal party. This limits their capacity for blue sky thinking, particularly as politicians tend to evaluate the value of change from a short-term electoral perspective. Yet there is clearly a national interest in academics taking part in public policy formulation as shown by the example of the United States. Here, Bill Clinton, following the path of John F Kennedy, employed many academic advisers. Even before he sought the Democratic nomination JFK engaged a group of professors whom he called the Academic Advisory Group, who helped him to draft his successful New Frontier programme.

Kennedy was following in the footsteps of Franklin D Roosevelt, whose historic New Deal was the creation of a group of academics from Columbia University. FDR called his group the Brains Trust. It is no coincidence that these are the Presidents frequently associated with implementing powerful and positive change in America.

It is not only liberal politics that attracts academics, as the American political philosopher Leo Strauss's influence on neo-conservatism makes clear. Successive US governments have understood that the advantages of seeking academic advice significantly outweigh the disadvantages. Academics are accustomed to providing non-partisan advice, pointing out and analysing the extent of the risks as well as the benefits.

Academia is equally adept at presenting policy skilfully and powerfully. The Harvard economist J.K. Galbraith first coined the phrases "conventional wisdom" and "the affluent society", which have since entered into common discourse. In Britain, the sociologist Tony Giddens is a rare example of an academic whose ideas about a Buddhist-inspired Third Way became a widely accepted political ideology. Such contributions do not displace media advisers and pollsters, but show that the popular image of professors as long-winded and obscure is not always accurate.

The challenge that John Denham, Secretary for innovation, universities and skills, has thrown down – that policy advice will be eligible for research funding – should be seized upon by British universities. His challenge creates a win-win situation, rare in public life. Universities benefit because peer-reviewing is hierarchical and risks rejecting new thinking as maverick. Governments benefit from politically disinterested expertise. Moreover, using academics is cost-effective, because they are already partly funded by the public purse, and therefore cost less than consultants.

Denham may wish to develop his ideas further. In South Africa, where I used to work, my professorial contract required that I produce publications for the community.

This is not a question of restricting academic freedom. Rather, it provides opportunities to work with ministers, judges and local people to test out ideas. Universities are part of the community and should be funded by the Government so that society can benefit from academics speaking truth to power.

The writer is Professor of International Human Rights Law at Queen Mary, University of London and Visiting Fellow, Kellogg College, Oxford