'I don't know why you even want to go to university', he says. 'You'll probably turn into a socialist'.
25 years later I became a professor at a big university in London. Dad couldn't be more proud or supportive of my career. He probably doesn't remember that conversation on the day his eldest child left town, onwards to a life unimaginable to either of us. As my academic colleagues furrow their brows contemplating the role of the university in an ever changing society, that moment seems instructive.
Firstly, it taught me that university is irrelevant to a lot of people. People like my Dad. My Dad is intelligent. He pays attention to the news. He understands politics. He can think for himself. Universities are just not that important for him.
Secondly, I had fair warning that academics are a bunch of lefties. For the most part, campus politics don't reflect wider political debates or values. Academic critique of dominant politics is very valuable and a source of radical ideas that soon become mainstream, but our independence and neutrality is imperfect.
Thirdly, I learned that universities transform lives. This can be liberating, but also terrifying. Despite the warnings I went off to university. I enrolled in engineering because it made sense to people - it meant I would get a good job, and contribute something tangible to the world. No-one should belittle a utilitarian motivation for getting a degree. I also went to uni because I was brainy, and other people constantly warned me not to 'waste my brains'. Along the way I got an education. The most important parts of that education happened in the library, on the lawn and in the tavern, not in the lab or the lecture hall. University changed me. It made me different to the person I was and also marked me out from those I 'left behind'.
Too many people have been 'left behind' by our universities. It was no surprise to me to hear that people are 'sick of experts'. This may signify a newly rising anti-intellectualism. It could also be a bursting of a bubble of exceptionalism that pervades our most highly-ranked universities, despite decades of higher education reform.
Universities exist to create and share knowledge. The question is, who for? Who decides what knowledge we pursue? Who do we share it with?
When they were first established, universities served the Church and other wealthy, white men. It is only very recently that universities were opened to women and people of colour. The idea of mass-higher education, accessible and affordable to all who are able, is a very recent, and vulnerable proposition. The university as an institution was fundamentally formed to serve powerful interests. That I was even allowed to sign up for that transformative library card is a miracle of twentieth-century post-war democracy.
While women, the working class and people of colour have gained a toe-hold into universities as students, they have had less direct influence on research agendas. The ideal model of research is independent scholars pursuing their own curiosity. If most of those scholars are white, wealthy men, then their curiosity might take them to places of little interest to the rest of 'society'. At UCL roughly 75% of professors are men and 90% are white. The reality of research is more murky. Research is funded by government and industry, according to national priorities and industry needs. Engineering gets more funding than the social sciences. We research some things, and not others, and people like my Dad have very little say about that.
There is a contradiction here - between the left wing politics academics are accused of and the powerful interests that much of our research serves. It is perhaps why we have become the perfect target for dishonest populist political slogans from all sides - vice-chancellors are out-of-touch fat cats, while students are no-platforming posters of the Prime Minister. It is also why debates about 'marketisation of higher education' barely scratch the surface of the tensions that are dividing university communities.
If you asked my Dad what he thinks should happen at universities it is unlikely that you would get a polite answer. It is not easy to engage with an institution that you think is irrelevant. But it is not impossible. This is why 'public engagement' is so important, alongside our teaching and research, and why it needs to involve more listening than telling. This model of working with the public is what we are trying to achieve with Engineering Exchange at UCL. It's about sharing university-based expertise beyond the usual powerful interests, and creating knowledge in partnership with communities. It's a modest attempt to do university work differently.
Doing university work differently is perhaps the only way through our current malaise. Whatever the pensions settlement, this felt like the most powerful outcome of the recent strike. On the picket-line we experimented with doing academic work outside the structure of the university - that strange institution we all love despite its chimeric merging of medieval scholasticism and millennial neo-liberalism. We held lively, intelligent conversations with students in tents, on pavements and hotel basements. We brought our various academic skills and methods to bear on a problem that mattered to us all. We remembered, finally, that we are the university.
Much has changed since that day on the showroom floor, but some things stay the same. I wouldn't call myself a socialist, and even before I set foot on campus I was already more leftish than Dad would have liked. The university remains a strange place full of transformative possibilities within ancient structures of power. I now know its frailties from the inside out, and yet I am optimistic and stubborn enough to continue down the road. For colleagues who've always felt sure of their place in the university and society, it must be disorienting to find the world changing around us in ways we can't control. For me, ambivalence, contingency and uncertainty have always been part of the wonder of university, which might just be the point.