Elite universities have their place in society, elitist attitudes don’t

Mark Logan says despite the populist revolt seen across the world this year, institutions such as top universities still have a role to play forging change

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 10:51am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 7:13pm

Strange old year, this 2016. In Chinese, the words “one” and “six” – yiliu – sounds like the term “first-rate”. The year is hardly associated with first-rate, considering Donald Trump’s elevation to Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Along with the Brexit vote, do these seismic changes mean there has never been a worse time to study at Harvard or Oxbridge?

You would think so. Populism, by definition, is a reaction against institutions in society. Populists and their followers see the system as being rigged against them, and few entities can better personify this rigged system than universities, especially ones like Harvard and Oxbridge.

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There are strong anti-establishment sentiments running through societies. With this in mind, should you dissuade your son or daughter from applying to study at Harvard or Oxbridge? Seeking wisdom from political scientist Paul Taggart, I would say no. Taggart called populism a “passing phenomenon, as it limits itself because of its attitude towards institutions”. My interpretation of this is that if a bureaucracy, institutions and elite didn’t exist, we would create them.

If a bureaucracy, institutions and elite didn’t exist, we would create them

Trump will attempt to create both formal and informal institutions in his own image. Society needs a range of skills and knowledge to function. Trump will also need, and perhaps want, to draw on the expertise of people who have studied at leading universities.

Your son or daughter should still strive for the best education. On a personal level, graduating from Harvard or Oxbridge will make them highly employable, according to The Times Higher Education. On a societal level, they can help push up standards for the many, not just the few.

However, an elitist attitude is most definitely unwanted. Borrowing again from Taggart, remember that populists “see wisdom as residing in the common people. From common people comes common sense, and this is better than bookish knowledge.”

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In 2017, we can aspire to a year of reform, reform, and then some – drawing on the wisdom of both the common people and the bookish ones. This can be a play on the Chinese words for “one” and “seven”, yiqi, which sound like the term “together”. Together, we must transcend polarity in our societies, whether in Hong Kong, Britain or the US. We must listen, understand and embrace other points of view.

Progress has a habit of winning in the long run. Universities are founded and grounded in the past, but they must also be the catalyst of an as-yet-unknown future.

Mark Logan was head of communications and spokesman at the British consulate general in Shanghai from 2012-16 and a global communications adviser to Chinese organisations