The morning after the night before

I switched on the television at ten.  I had intended to look at the exit poll and, assuming it would point to a clear winner, turn in.   My wife stuck to her plan to go to bed, but I stayed up until about 3.30 am – and in an age of Twitter, watching the early hours coverage is a pretty sociable experience. My favourite tweet was ‘if you are feeling nervous, imagine how the foxes are feeling’ – referring to the Conservative manifesto’s surprising promise to restore fox hunting.

It was an unexpected election, and when it was called it appeared to be heading for a landslide, but it has ended with a hung Parliament – an outcome predicted, it seems, only by a mathematical model developed by a polling company which, were I to explain it, would take up my entire word allocation. However you look at the result, it’s not what the Prime Minister who called this early election had expected or predicted, and, as I write this, no-one expects the resulting government to be stable – whilst we face some of the most difficult national decisions for a century.

As Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam, one the UK’s largest universities, I am delighted that the evidence suggests that the turnout from young people, and especially from students, was strikingly high. Decisions – as Harry Truman may have said – are made by those who turn up. Nick Clegg, who lost the constituency sharing the name of Sheffield Hallam University, gave a moving and thoughtful concession speech. This country, he said, is deeply divided in so many ways, between rich and poor, between Leavers and Remainers, between old and young. We have, he went on, to find ways to heal those divisions or we face the most severe problems as a nation. In previous elections, turnout has largely been inversely related to age – younger people have been less likely to vote. The turnout amongst young people in this election was high.  They understood, not least after the Referendum, that politics matters to them, to their future and to the world which will be theirs. Elections should always be about the future. If this election excited the young, that is an unalloyed positive and – whatever your politics – you should rejoice.

The youth vote is thought to have been strikingly high (Photo by Adam Scotti / CC-BY-2.0. Available at:

The youth vote is thought to have been strikingly high (Photo by Adam Scotti)

But the outcome of the election is not clear cut. After a year in which the UK’s future has been fundamentally reshaped by the Brexit referendum, we have an inconclusive outcome. There is no confident majority for anyone. The election was called by a Prime Minister who wanted to secure support for her approach to Brexit negotiations, but our politicians gave us an inward-looking campaign which, not just in respect of Brexit, answered none of the big questions. We are no clearer about where the discussions with our European partners will take us – only that the clock is ticking.  Although they need to be worked through in the complex technicalities of legislation and regulation, there are big questions to be resolved, and time is running out.

Those questions are about the sort of country we will be, about how we will think about the environment and healthcare, about how we will build prosperity and inclusion. They are questions about our relationships with our European neighbours and partners and about the world beyond. The frustration of the election campaign was that few of these issues were debated by political leaders. The election result demonstrated that voters and, perhaps especially, young voters do care about those questions.

The challenge for our politicians – too often cut off from the concerns of the electorate and the realities of life outside a political and policy bubble – is now huge.  They need to raise their game, to realise what is at stake, that the next two years do not simply involve negotiations of great difficulty but also deep questions about the choices facing the nation.  Too often they seem analogue actors on a digital stage.

Universities have to play a vital role in shaping the nation’s future. Not only do universities now educate a greater proportion of young people than ever before, but they deal, as part of their routine activities, with the sort of society and economy of the future. Increasingly, that is a knowledge-based economy, in which advanced technical capabilities intersect with a progressively more complex society.

Society needs its universities more than ever before. My reading of the election manifestoes was that neither of the major parties had quite grasped this, nor the critical role that universities can play is driving successful societies. Other countries have understood this much better. Of course, universities themselves need to do better – reaching out more confidently, asserting their contribution more clearly, listening harder to those for whom the knowledge-based economy and the diverse, interconnected society of the future is something to fear.

On June 8, the country took its politicians by surprise.  As I write this they are struggling to work out how to respond.  None has made the sort of statements which the gravity of our situation needed, reaching out to other perspectives and views, understanding, as the tragically murdered Labour MP Jo Cox put it, that more unites us than divides us.  Beyond the EU referendum, beyond the 2017 election, we are a fragmented society dealing with huge issues. That’s a challenge to which universities – and their students – need to rise.

2 thoughts on “The morning after the night before

  1. The election has made us all think.
    It has turned the world’s gaze on how and with what effect the British politicians and people themselves will react. The drive for social responsibility and the imperative to think beyond ourselves was a key message for me – as an academic I have to interrogate not only the information from outside, but also reflect on how we respond internally. As have said before, the benefits of HEIs is that they have an opportunity to inform, shape and challenge the next generation… and this includes looking at what we do, how we apply efforts ourselves.

    I hope that the energy and willingness of young people to come out and make a positive contribution to the political direction in Britain will be matched by their academic tutors and mentors – as academics, we must grasp our responsibility to engender students with the critical skills they need to not only complete their studies effectively, but challenge the world.

    • Excellent points Laura. I certainly detected a greater engagement in politics amongst our students in the run up to this GE, and it opens up reflections about what our role is as academics. What is heartening about this surge in younger voters is that they are grasping their own agency and seeing that they can have an effect. Its an encouraging start and HEIs and academics DO have an important role to play.

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