UCU general secretary Sally Hunt uses Brexit speech to urge progressives to 'take back control'

10 February 2017 | last updated: 13 February 2017

If Trump and Brexit are part of the post-truth problem, then universities and colleges must be part of the solution, said UCU general secretary Sally Hunt at a conference looking at education post-Brexit.

She said that instead of being 'cowed by the Brexiteers' clarion call of take back control, progressives should make it their own'. She said that victories for Brexit and by Donald Trump demonstrate the need to fight for the right of expertise, evidence and critical argument to be heard again.

Speaking at UCU's annual Cradle to Grave conference in London, where shadow chancellor John McDonnell is among the speakers, Sally warned that we live in 'an age of unenlightenment where it is not just bankers who are out of fashion but knowledge too'.

She said: 'We are living in an age of unenlightenment. An age when expertise is a dirty word. An age when people who lie - as the Brexit campaign did - to gain advantage are lauded for their cunning. And an age where someone to whom truth is an unacquainted stranger can be elected president of the United States.'

Defending education and criticising government plans to make it easier for for-profit companies to become universities and award degrees, she said: 'The higher education bill is utterly without merit; its only real objective is to make it easier for for-profit colleges to gain a foothold here.

'Do we want a Trump University to flourish in the UK, ripping off students, and putting a global reputation built up over centuries at risk? We must continue to fight this bill because if experience from the US teaches us one thing, it is that it won't be the kids from Eton and Harrow who get ripped off by the for-profit colleges.'

After setting out how the education community should respond to the new political situation, she will urge delegates to 'take back control of the argument about truth, expertise and reasoning'.

She said: 'It's our job to help people to speak English. It's our job to teach the teachers. It's our job to train the doctors. It's our job to give students the ability to think for themselves. To expand knowledge through research.  And to transform lives.

'So let's get back on the attack. Let's make the positive case that education benefits us all. And that a fair and just society must be one with education at its heart.'

Other speakers at the conference looking at what a post-Brexit future holds for further and higher education at TUC Congress Centre included shadow chancellor John McDonnell; Jenny Gilruth, SNP MSP parliamentary liaison officer to the education secretary; Sir Peter Scott, University College London; Professor Kalwant Bhopal, University of Birmingham and National Union of Students president Malia Bouattia.

At the event UCU launched a booklet it has produced in collaboration with Refugee Action that challenges negative perceptions about the impact of refugees and asylum seekers and details why people are forced to flee their countries.

 

Sally Hunt's full speech:

We are living in an age of unenlightenment. An age when expertise is a dirty word. An age when people who lie - as the Brexit campaign did - to gain advantage are lauded for their cunning.

And an age where someone to whom truth is an unacquainted stranger can be elected president of the United States.

As David Tollerton has said, Trump's victory at the end of a bruising year felt like a defeat for 'the practice of logical, reasoned argument itself'.

So far, so depressing. But I want to argue that instead of recoiling defensively, we must fight for the right of expertise, of evidence and of critical argument to be heard again.

For many, the defeat of truth has been combined with political defeat too. Everywhere you look, progressives seem to be on the run.

If the political change we have long dreamed of has at its roots, working-class anger with an economy tilted against them, why is it is the populist Right that has gained. And why, in this new environment is it that it is not just bankers who are out of fashion but knowledge too.

Well it's happened before as we know. It was Primo Levi who warned the world to beware of what he called 'the would-be tyrant waiting in the wings, with 'beautiful words' on his lips.'

 And the snuffing out of intellectual life - the questioning of truth and knowledge - has always been key to the political plans of the strong man.

So the dangers in this situation are all too obvious.

For my part I want to talk about four ways in which I believe that the education community can and should respond to this new political situation.

First, recognise the threat.

This new politics despises diversity, deplores intellectualism and represents the biggest challenge to liberal democracy since the Second World War. We can see this in Trump's appalling, racist ban on nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries, which risks stranding hundreds of thousands of university staff and students.

We can see it too in the way that EU nationals, including tens of thousands working in UK universities, are held to ransom while Theresa May's government attempts to cobble together a negotiating strategy for Brexit.

Higher education generates billions of pounds for the economy and has a profoundly positive impact on society. Yet our government, if it considers the sector at all, seems to view us as a nuisance or a haven for potential terrorists. So, the threat is real.

And that takes me to point number 2.

If we retreat from our communities in the hope that this all goes away we may find the ivory tower burned to the ground. We must take the opportunity now provided to insist that higher education, with all its benefits, becomes rooted in its immediate communities.

Why? Well, survey after survey shows that working-class people do not see post-school education either as a method for advancement or as something they should subsidise through taxation.

This lack of wider political support for advancement through education makes it easier for Michael Gove and friends to decry expertise. 

Our university admissions system is riddled with bias against those from so-called non-traditional backgrounds. Even those from working class backgrounds lucky enough to attend university typically end up in one type of institution, while the privately educated inhabit another more privileged enclave.

If we want to show that we still matter, we must reform. Because making access to university fairer will increase political support for higher education across the spectrum.

Third, we must defend quality and oppose marketisation. The UK's higher education bill is utterly without merit - its only real objective is to make it easier for for-profit colleges to gain a foothold here.

Do we want a Trump University to flourish in the UK, ripping off students, and putting a global reputation built up over centuries at risk?

We must continue to fight this bill because if experience from the US teaches us one thing, it is that it won't be the kids from Eton and Harrow who get ripped off by the for-profit colleges.

Now, finally maybe the biggest question of all - can we do it?

Because if Trump and Brexit are part of the post-truth problem, surely universities and colleges and those who work in them must be part of the solution.

Instead of being cowed by the Brexiteers' clarion call of 'take back control', progressives should make it their own. An empowering state at the centre of a renewed vision.

In our own world of education, when the state acts in the interests of social justice it helps millions. Look at the expansion of universities since the Second World War. Or the technical colleges that used to exist in every town where adults could go to learn. Or the Open University.

Or even when policy makers like Les Ebdon or Peter Scott - who is with us today - use their power to tilt the balance a little. So yes, let's take back control of the debate about what the state can do.

Let's argue that the state's job is to empower those who start with the dice loaded against them.

And finally let's take back control of the argument about truth, expertise and reasoning.

It's our job to help people to speak English. It's our job to teach the teachers. Train the doctors. Give students the ability to think for themselves. To expand knowledge through research.  And to transform lives.

That's what we are here for. So let's get back on the attack. Let's make the positive case that education benefits us all.

And that a fair and just society must be one with education at its heart.

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