Labour urged to dispel ‘woke campuses’ and ‘burger flipper’ myths

Party conference hears Tony Blair Institute economist and Coventry provost call for change of tone on sector expansion and cultural attacks

September 26, 2022
front view of many delicious juicy hamburgers
Source: iStock

Labour has been urged to dispel the narratives growing under the Conservative government that universities are “full of woke liberals out to destroy the country”, and that higher education expansion has produced “graduate burger flippers”.

A university leader and an economist set out their cases at a fringe event at the Labour conference in Liverpool, hosted by the University Alliance.

Sitting on a panel alongside shadow higher education minister Matt Western, Coventry University provost Ian Dunn made a “plea” for “changing the tone that’s grown at the moment, particularly in certain parts – The Times and The [DailyTelegraph – [that] universities are full of woke liberals who are out to destroy the country…It’s just not true.”

Another member of the panel, Steve Coulter, head of industrial strategy, skills and sustainability at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, highlighted its recent report which argued that higher education expansion has “propped up” the UK economy in recent years and the Tories risked a “grave mistake” in turning away from the sector.

That study’s call for 70 per cent higher education participation by 2040 met with “lots of spluttering from the Telegraph”, but had used “growth accounting” analysis to pinpoint the contribution of physical capital, human capital and technology to growth, finding higher education expansion was “about the only thing contributing to our paltry growth rate”, said Dr Coulter, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute.

“If you pull the rug out from education by…dissing universities and saying they are ‘woke’ and saying too many people are going there to become burger flippers, then you remove a really important source of human capital,” he continued.

“We have a world-class university system. Students want to study there; companies want to hire them. Why mess with this?”

The growing importance of artificial intelligence and automation “makes the case for [higher education] expansion even more compelling”, he added, given graduates have the skills “complementary to the technologies” – technical knowledge but also soft skills, collaboration and creativity.

“There are already severe skills shortages in the labour market,” mainly in “graduate-heavy sectors” such as professional services and high-value manufacturing, argued Dr Coulter.

He added: “You don’t want to hobble the one part of the education system…that is functioning very well, which is higher education. You need to take a long-term view of where our skills needs in the economy lie.”

The other pleas from Mr Dunn, who stressed Coventry’s reputation as an innovator, were for further and higher education to be allowed to work “in much closer partnerships to allow them to operate together”, which would “reduce the cost of back offices, putting more money into education”, meaning universities and colleges could work with “a small- and medium-sized employer for all of their needs” across different qualification levels and “not just part of their needs”.

And on digital skills, he said: “Give us opportunities to create new models, to liberate some of the possibilities that exist, to develop at scale.”

It was, he added, “no good” creating 100 places in AI “in a wonderful interdisciplinary school in London – we need those skills across the country”.

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Reader's comments (2)

Steve Coulter proposes a 70% participation rate in Higher Education by 2040. This would be very difficult to implement if all students were studying for degrees. How do you educate 70% of the ability range in one class ? Universities would have to offer a range of qualifications to accommodate this ability range with obvious implications for resources. The old polytechnics were able to offer such a range of qualifications but these institutions are no longer with us.
University is more than acquiring the skills to do a particular job. University is where we teach people to think and view the world from different perspectives. This instrumental emphasis on skills (also soft skills) misses entirely the key role that universities have in creating human capital: the citizens of tomorrow, not just the workers of tomorrow. I have misgivings about a 70% participation rate target if it is seen only as a means to increase skilled workers. We need to have a much more rounded debate around the role of higher education.