Labour should make better use of supportive academics

Thom Brooks

Whoever wins the leader and deputy leadership contests will have a difficult task unifying a Labour Party still in mourning after the 2019 defeat. Adding to that challenge, there is now less money to support expert advisors because we won fewer seats. The government can rely on the civil service to support its programme of reforms, yet the mountain an opposition must climb is more arduous, with less resources for additional advisors to help it hold the government to account and develop plans for taking power.

Labour is only beginning to unlock the enormously potential of its huge membership, and a relatively untapped part is the significant number of pro-Labour leading academics. They could be put to greater use, funded through other resources, bringing further benefits to policy development while remaining cost neutral. Recently, the government advertised for experts and “weirdos” to apply for a series of positions in select areas via Dominic Cummings’ blog. The plan was to have a formal recruitment round in various roles, including policy experts. This has costs that may be within reach of a newly elected government, but beyond what an opposition relying on limited funding can spend. The issue then becomes how the opposition can similarly benefit from extra policy experts, without the additional resources to pay for them.

The answer can partly be found in making better use of leading academics who are Labour members or supportive of Labour’s policy goals. University professors and lecturers are more pro-Labour than pro-Conservative by a large margin across academic fields, providing a wide-ranging talent pool to draw upon. This is, in my view, not a product of bias but of following evidence – which often overturns conventional, traditional thinking in favour of progressive, new solutions to old problems.

There is a strong incentive for academics working in higher education and their universities to provide free policy advice and expertise. This incentive comes from the research excellence framework (REF), a competitive national framework assessing the quality of research in every academic department across all universities. Assessments happen every six to seven years with the next exercise ranking departments in 2021. The better the quality of a department’s research in the REF, the greater the share of new income they receive each year until the next one. The exercise ranks departments across every academic subject, from first to last, with those at the top receiving more research funding than any below it.

A department’s REF score is determined mostly (ca. 60%) by the quality of its publications as judged and scored by a panel. The department’s general research environment is also taken into account – looking at research funding, PhD student completions and other factors (ca. 15%). A significant portion of a department’s REF score is determined by its research ‘impact’ (ca. 25%). And research impact is defined as follows:

Impact includes, but is not limited to, an effect on, change or benefit to:

  • the activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding;
  • of an audience, beneficiary, community, constituency, organisation or individuals;
  • in any geographic location whether locally, regionally, nationally or internationally.

A department needs one impact case study for every 11 research-active staff members – e.g. an academic department of 33+ staff would require three impact case studies. But the numbers here are not the important part of this story. The greater the impact generated by an academic or team of academics on a certain project, then the higher their score – which will support a stronger REF performance and the added financial support for the institution that comes with it.

Universities, as charities, cannot discriminate between political parties or provide funding – and rightly so. However, universities can and do support fringe events at party conferences and much more. Universities also regularly provide funding to support academics to make regular visits to parliament, as mine has done. This is not to promote any particular political view, but to support the advancement of the research-led impact of its scholars on policy development, without supporting any one party to the exclusion of others. Most universities would make such funding available for their staff because it can literally pay off in earning extra funding through creating a strong impact case study that boosts a positive REF performance.

There is an opportunity to create a new ‘academic Labour network’, creating a ready team of policy expert advisors from the university sector. They would provide additional support in areas or topics relevant to Labour’s future policy development, acting as part-time advisors and at no cost to the Labour Party. Its launch would require minimal organisation beyond targeting the areas of expertise required. Experienced policy advisors like me can assist in supporting the location of funding from institutions to attend meetings as required and to support training and continued mentoring, so that all work together and understand their role and specified areas for making a contribution. This work can include drafting brief policy reports as directed, recommending written questions for tabling, providing advice ahead of oral debates, additional scrutiny of proposed legislation and more.

This network can be utilised to do much more than be an extra set of policy advisors – it could be the heart of a new educational and training organisation. Recent calls by Keir Starmer to create a ‘Labour Party college’ delivering accredited political education, campaign training, leadership skills and online courses would be transformative. And an academic Labour network could bring together pro-Labour scholars that have the know-how and ability to make a Labour Party college, and its hugely positive and ambitious programme for change, possible.

The UK is home to some of the world’s leading universities – and the most talented academics, the majority of whom are supportive of Labour if not party members already. This is a talent pool that is underused but could be unlocked at no cost to the party and at much potential gain. It could easily be used to address the needs of the leader’s office and front bench, with training and mentoring from an experienced, policy-interfacing academic already in use. Such an academic Labour network would provide much beneficial support to whoever wins the leadership contests.

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