To overcome populism we must bridge educational divide, says Louise Richardson

27 November 2017

Professor Louise Richardson FAcSS, Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, told the fifth Campaign for Social Science Annual SAGE Publishing Lecture that we must bridge the educational divide to prevent populism from threatening democracy.

Watch our interview video with Professor Louise Richardson FAcSS and other speakers

Speaking before an audience of policymakers, journalists and academics in Whitehall, Richardson’s lecture on November 21, entitled Educational Inequality in a Populist Era, charted the rise of the anti-intellectualism wave in the UK, and identified the risks to democracy caused by persistent inequality and gaps in educational attainment.

Richardson explained how the “renaissance of populism” has captured public imagination – and anxieties – the globe over, fuelled by the unifying principle that “only one group is legitimate: the people, however defined”. This creates a stark contrast between a “pure people” on the one hand against a “corrupt elite” on the other, distinguished not by wealth, but by values.

In such a climate, “disdain for experts goes hand in hand with populism”, Richardson said, drawing on “long traditions of anti-intellectualism that consign universities to the ranks of self-serving elites”.

The old adage that truth is the first casualty of war may have been displaced by truth being the first casualty of political campaigns.

As populism feeds distrust in experts and the institutions to which they belong, it has a corrosive effect on democracy, she warned.

“The risk is that we find ourselves in a vicious cycle, where voters have disengaged from politics”, and are not informing themselves adequately to make reasoned judgements. In the absence of an informed citizenry, experts and technocrats become dominant, trust breaks down between voters and experts, and the latter ultimately retreat from public debate, talking only to one another.

But Richardson cautioned against the fallacy of turning inward. “The duty of universities is not to retreat”, she said. Rather, they must respond by “standing our ground and doing what we do best- pushing at the frontiers of knowledge and educating the next generation”.

This requires more engagement and a willingness to remain “irrevocably true to our principles”, while promoting “fair[ness] in our admissions procedures and transparen[cy] in our governance, doing all we can to address the deep educational inequalities in our country”.

While factors such as income, race, and age certainly play a role, it is acute educational divisions that provide the clearest sign of profound societal cleavages, and carry the greatest risks for the future.

“The educational divide could have portentous ramifications”, she said, “with the potential to undermine the bonds that hold representative democracy together. These bonds rely on trust and assume certain shared values like respect for knowledge. If knowledge is perceived as simply a perk of the plutocracy, the underlying consensus and basis of truth on which decisions are made could be eroded.”

To prevent even greater social fissures, Richardson said students must be taught respect for evidence, learning to “distinguish between opinion and information, between information and knowledge, and knowledge and wisdom”. This will equip them to become advocates for evidence-based reason, policy and decision making.

She recognised that educators, researchers, and universities occupy a “very privileged position” and told these groups to “demonstrate they deserve it.”

The scale of educational inequalities in this country is an issue of such import that we should be concentrating all the methods of our discipline in attempting an understanding of the scale, causes, and identifying evidence-based polices that might serve to mitigate the problem.

“We cannot continue to assume that the value of what we do is self-evident to those outside the academy”, Richardson said. “We must persuade our societies of the value of what we do if we are to retain public support and through it public funding. In so doing we will bring ourselves closer to our communities and to a keener understanding of the developments taking place around us.”

She celebrated the role of educators who “inculcate a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge”, supported by universities as “places of community, belonging, diversity, and tolerance, places that embrace rather than fear difference”, places where “there is no such thing as an alternative fact”. Thus, part of their role must be to “export these qualities” and an appreciation for evidence “to the world through our students”.

Richardson also spoke of the gap in educational attainment by region, ethnicity and income, saying that there is “overwhelming evidence” that the impact of inequality is felt from a young age. The response of social scientists would be crucial in overcoming this divide, and the populist anti-intellectual undercurrents it sustains, as it is their responsibility to investigate and help create evidence-based policies to ameliorate the divisions that have plagued society.

“If we are to play the role we claim in identifying looming social and political issues, and in seeking solutions to societal problems, we must be the first to recognise their evolution and their impact”, she said.

“Social scientists must become fierce and objective guardians of knowledge. We must not be shy about challenging falsehood coming from any direction”.

The Rt Hon Lord David Willetts, Executive Chair of the Resolution Foundation, followed Richardson’s speech by analysing the social, cultural, and economic trends that have contributed to the rise in populism, and interrogated what part universities have and will play in this changing landscape.

We shouldn’t forget the economics behind populism.

Reminding the audience “not to forget about the economics of populism”, Willetts pointed to low pay increases, negative growth, and widening income inequality as inflaming popular discontent.

He also looked at housing tenure as an important indicator of voting-likelihood, contending that the gap between high voting propensity for owners, and low voting propensity for renters has become even wider, contributing to Richardson’s earlier concerns about detachment politics.

“If you look at a society where instead of pay rising, pay is falling, and instead of owner occupation you get more people, especially young people, renting, that is a backdrop for angry populism and disengagement from the voting and electoral system”, he said

He questioned whether higher education itself has some responsibility for the growing distrust of experts. He asked whether it was possible that “some of this scepticism about truth, and the unwillingness to accept evidence is itself associated with fashionable intellectual currents whose emanation came from universities themselves”.

These are big questions for our society, big questions for the political class, but they’re all big questions for our universities themselves.

Willetts also expressed concern that “current public policy is further driving the deracination of the university”. The prestige and reward system for UK universities favours large scale research projects in foreign countries over the study of local issues where disciplinary insight can serve valuable civic functions. For Willetts, the challenge is balancing “high quality globally successful research” alongside a civic and local role for universities, ensuring the “incentive system does not penalise that role for the university”.

The event was introduced by the Campaign’s new chair, Professor Shamit Saggar CBE FAcSS, and Ziyad Marar, President of Global Publishing at SAGE Publishing.

In his remarks, Marar said SAGE was “obsessed with social science”, and spoke about their future focus around the rise of big data, new technology and the transformations of “our culture and our polity in profound ways”. He added that one of the most important ways to champion social science is through events such as the Annual Lecture, showcasing social science at an exceptional standard.

This was the fifth lecture in the annual series. Last year’s was delivered by Professor Beth Noveck, Director of The Governance Lab. Sharon Witherspoon, former Nuffield Foundation Director and current Head of Policy at the Campaign and its parent organisation, the Academy of Social Sciences, delivered the 2015 lecture. Former LSE Director Craig Calhoun delivered the 2014 lecture, while the inaugural lecture in 2013 was given by David Willetts, the then Universities and Science Minister.

Watch our interview video with Professor Louise Richardson FAcSS and other speakers