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Universities need to allow for more “ideological diversity” and controversial debate, otherwise they risk “losing the public argument” over whether they are out of touch with society, the University of Oxford’s vice chancellor has said.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit, Louise Richardson said the “culture wars” and the idea that universities are “bastions of snowflakes” were being “fanned” by elements in the media and politics.

This was adding to a growing perception among nongraduates that “their taxes are paying for these utterly overprivileged students who want all kinds of protections that they never had, and I think we have to take this seriously.”

To tackle this, she said, “We need more ideological diversity in our universities; we need to foster more open debate on controversial subjects.

“We need to teach our students how to engage civilly in reasoned debate with people with whom we disagree powerfully because, unless we do that, we are going to lose the public argument,” Richardson added.

However, she also took a swipe at those who had seemingly questioned academia’s contribution to society, singling out British government minister and Oxford alumnus Michael Gove, who, she said “I’m embarrassed to confess we educated,” given his famous comments during the Brexit campaign that people had “had enough of experts.”

Richardson pointed to the development of COVID-19 vaccines such as the jab developed by Oxford, saying, “Well, [with] the vaccine it seems the public can’t get enough of experts. Many of our scientists have become household names. We have demonstrated through the vaccine work … just how much universities can contribute, and that’s enormously helpful for our cause.”

The summit session, “Are Universities Widening Geographic Divisions,” also heard from the University of Cape Town vice chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, who criticized the framing of the debate about whether continents such as Africa were suffering from a brain drain of scholarly talent to richer nations.

“Some of the talk about the brain drain comes across as ‘Africans, go back home,’ but some Africans may not be able to go home or they may not want to,” she said. “People need to have free choice about their futures just as anyone has got free choice.”

She suggested that one “controversial” way around the problem could be for developed countries that have benefited from the movement of talent to “pay a form of tax or some kind of support back to the country of origin.”

“The point is that the way Africans can contribute to their continent’s development doesn’t have to mean that they must go back home,” she said.

“If we do something like [a] tax … perhaps we can stop this tussle about the blame game and have a situation that allows people to have the dignity of making a choice of where they want to contribute and where they want to work.”

Meanwhile, Phakeng also said that her years of trying to broaden access and achievement beyond the most advantaged students had led her to question whether universities were sometimes taking the wrong approach by assuming that those from working-class backgrounds were “underprepared” for higher education.

“The underpreparedness … has to do, in my view, with their lack of cultural capital and not so much their intellect” and perhaps it was universities themselves that were underprepared for how to teach such students. “Across [the] university, success tends to be racialized or confined to a particular socioeconomic class,” she said.

“I don’t think this is only a South African phenomenon … I think it is there elsewhere in the world, and to me that indicates a built-in middle-class prejudice on the part of the institution: an expectation that students will transform by assimilating” into the type of graduates “that have dominated graduation ceremonies” in the past.

“That doesn’t mean that you pass students whether they deserve it or not; that means we critique … why is it that it is only the middle class that seem to succeed,” Phakeng said.

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