One of the things that distinguishes top Universities around the world is that, certainly in democracies, they are usually power-houses of public policy ideas.
True, in recent years in some countries Universities have been squeezed out by (sometimes very well funded) Think Tanks and governments that regarded ‘liberal’ or ‘leftie’ academics as more of a problem than a help (especially in the UK and USA). Of course, there are plenty of right-wing academics, so this was always a false view, but it did squeeze some University-based ideas out of the policy communities.
There are some small signs of a renewed confidence amongst Universities and a new recognition of the importance of our role in “speaking truth unto power”. Maybe the obvious weaknesses and confusion of governments of all-stripes in the face of the international financial and fiscal crises has opened a space? Whatever the reason, there has been a marked international and UK growth in Masters-level provision of public policy and administration courses and new institutes and schools: e.g. the new Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford; new Masters of Public Policy courses there and at Cambridge; over a dozen new MPA courses across the UK.
My own University (Manchester) has recognised these developments and is trying something a little different. We surveyed staff last summer and found we had around 350 colleagues engaged externally in various areas of public policy. Whilst we have very well recognised colleagues in various individual policy areas, for some reason Manchester as whole isn’t seen as a public policy ‘hub’ even by ourselves, although we clearly are.
And we’ve also recognised we have a unique conjunction of events that can help us. Manchester as a city has suddenly upped its profile, as Manchester City has joined United at the top of English football, and the arrival of “Media City” means there’s suddenly lots of media folk discovering there is intelligent life outside of the M25 ‘beltway’.
The University has had some rather notable successes – most famously our double-Nobel prize for Professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for the discovery of the new wonder material ‘graphene’. And Professor Brian Cox is hardly ever off the TV following his highly acclaimed TV series ‘Wonders of the Universe’ and ‘Wonders of the Solar System’.
All of which provides us with a big opportunity. Policy@Manchester is a new ‘network’ across the University that will seek to capitalise on all that, which I’ll be directing. We’re not an “institute” or “centre”, we have plenty of those already. Hopefully we’ll be a bit more Academia 2.0 – making use of web-technology to be much more flexible and interactive, creating real ‘communities of interest’. Watch this space.
(We’ll shortly be announcing an email listserv address for those who’d like to sign-up to keep in touch with what we are doing).