Trade bodies or professional associations have pretty much one main role in life: to represent the views of the entire industry or profession on issues of fundamental importance to them all. Across most sectors, it’s pretty effective. The voice of the steel industry as represented by UK Steel, for example, has been heard loud and clear in recent days as it lobbies the Government for financial support on sharply rising energy costs.
The same should be true of academia. Independent schools and Universities have their representative bodies in the form of the Headmasters’ Conference (HMC), the Russell Group and The Association for Modern Universities (MillionPlus), but why are they not speaking up more loudly?
A cursory glance at any newspaper demonstrates that schools and universities are embattled over a number of very significant issues that have the power to inflict real damage to their brands. Cancel Culture, Freedom of Speech, alleged “Woke” behaviours, and Chinese influence have all become headline news in various institutions – most recently at the University of Sussex this weekend.
What the Vice Chancellor is addressing in Brighton – protecting freedom of speech in the face of what was perceived to be an attack on trans rights – applies to almost every other university and further education college up and down the country.
Without the support of his professional association, Sussex’s Vice Chancellor is having to be a lone voice defending his colleague’s rights to free speech, laying himself open to vitriolic and personal attacks from one or both sides of the debate. The academic herself has been advised to engage security guards for protection on campus.
If there’s ever a time when higher education’s professional bodies should put their head above the parapet and speak on these issues it’s now. It’s not fair that each academic establishment should be expected to defend itself about issues they are all facing. That’s what industry bodies are for.