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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Reach Volunteering: Would you like to volunteer your expertise as Chair of Governors for Livability?

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses are reimbursable: Reach Volunteering...

Ashdown Group: Payroll Administrator - Buckinghamshire - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + substantial benefits: Ashdown Group: Finance Admin...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine