Had enough of experts? Really? Keep them coming – and make sure there’s plenty for the future.
Posted on March 10, 2020
Let’s talk about expertise.
If there’s any jollity to be gleaned from the current situation, it’s been in witnessing the puncturing of the bluster and false confidence that has been the hallmark of this government. The usually effervescent Johnson – I’m hoping that everyone has now worked out that the endearing bumbling is a rehearsed act – can no longer appear in public unless he is flanked by grown-ups in the form of medical and scientific advisers. Fortunately, their serene and dignified presence prevents him from showing off and saying something silly. He loves to be loved and so we have to hope that even he can feel the dispassionate, poker-faced disapproval that lurks quietly beside him, restraining him from blurting out some harmful, if cheery, misinformation.
The advisers look the part. Unpolished in everything except their grasp of the situation. It’s them we want to hear, with their balanced assessments and bland delivery. We’re happy to be treated like grown-ups and we don’t want false promises. If there are choices to be made about how we conduct ourselves, let them give us as much information as is available and we’ll try to act accordingly. I’m not going to labour the point – but compare and contrast with recent political hectoring and half-truths.
In another part of our universe, in an ongoing event that merits very little media coverage, university lecturers have been on strike for days. The dispute is about low pay, but that is not the only point at issue. Workload, gender equality and an increasingly casualised workforce all contribute to a suite of grievances from those who teach – and, crucially, research – at our universities. As a group of workers taking industrial action, their impact on society in general – apart from the students they work with – is minimal: no trains stop running, no wards close, parcels are still delivered by the hour. It’s just a bunch of people who have a pretty easy life not knowing when they’re well off. Well, not quite.
In the past three years the steady flow of academics leaving the UK to work elsewhere has climbed by almost a half. They take with them their knowledge and research projects. Since the Brexit referendum, senior academics from around the world think twice before committing to research ventures here. This may all seem rather specialist and removed from those people for whom losing their low-paid casual employment is a fact of life. But as privileged as academics and their pursuits may seem to be, we need them now more than ever. What’s more, there could be plenty of money to pay them well and keep them working for the benefit of all of us. Wherever you live in England, you’ll be aware of this. Not convinced? Bear with me.
We see them everywhere – blocks of flats labelled as ‘student living’ or some such slogan. It’s an enormously lucrative market. One company, CGP Student Living, registered a 51% increase in its profits to June 2019 to £92.7 million. Around the country, featureless complexes spring up generating profit for private companies who see university education as a cash cow to be milked as vigorously as possible. If only there were some sort of system where a government chose to fund universities at a level so that the returns from doing something simple, like providing basic accommodation, could be ploughed back into the system. We could call it……let me think now….fair taxation. Yes. That’d do it. Fair taxation for the benefit of the greater public good.
And there’s the crux of the issue. Nobody disputes that a university education is, for many people, a personal benefit, usually in financial terms. But if that is how we limit our perceptions, if that is how we ‘sell’ the purpose of higher education to young people and their parents, we are missing the point in an alarming way. Universities, and the academics who work there, provide not only the expertise that we need in the here and now but, as we realise with every passing day, they must produce people to tackle the problems that we haven’t even encountered yet. That takes time, patience, experience and knowledge; quick profiteering has no place in fostering those qualities.
I suspect that over the next few says we will hear a good deal of perfectly sensible talk about tempering our individual actions for the common good. As a principle, it’s not one we have had much practice with. What’s more, successive governments, particularly those from the stable from which Johnson has been bred, have been more vocal about encouraging a more individualistic – and selfish – approach to life. So, the Prime Minister will just have to excuse me if I turn off when he’s talking and allow me to prick up my ears when the adults in the room speak. And, with some luck, they’ll make us reflect that supporting experts in the making – and ensuring we’ve got a supply line of them for the future – is a way of improving life for all of us.