Why the ‘leftward lean’ in UK universities matters

John Morgan looks at the ‘culture wars’ approach to universities emerging on the Right, and the counter-arguments

June 1, 2017
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The “policing of speech and hostility to dissent is the new normal in higher education”; it is “enforced overtly through ‘safe space’ codes”; it is “reinforced by an approach towards alternative viewpoints that treats conservatism as if were a communicable disease”.

So said Michael Gove, the former Conservative education secretary, in his Times column in March, basing his argument in the rigorous evidence base of conversations with his “host” at an Oxford dinner and talking with “academic friends afterwards”. That column, and others that emerged at the time, raised questions of whether a US-style “culture wars” approach to universities could ever be imported to the UK. The Times Higher Education survey showing that levels of support for Labour and the Liberal Democrats appear to be higher among university staff than among the general population comes in an interesting context.

Mr Gove’s column was written in response to a report by the Adam Smith Institute, which describes itself as a neoliberal, free-market thinktank. The report claimed that “evidence suggests the overrepresentation of left-liberal views may have increased since the 1960s”.

While the Adam Smith Institute detected bias and groupthink in universities, others have suggested that declining levels of support for the Conservatives have been driven not just by the party’s policies to cut public funding for higher education since then, but by its hostility to the European Union and its stance on immigration.

Siobhan McAndrew, lecturer in sociology with quantitative research methods at the University of Bristol, offered a more nuanced take than Mr Gove.

“For most disciplines, the issue doesn’t really arise – there isn’t a politically correct geology or mathematics,” Dr McAndrew said. “Those with more radical values are often just more visible in the way they engage; centrists are less likely to be blogging fiercely about the virtues of gradualism.

“We’re living in polarised times and it would be easy and dangerous to caricature academia when, in fact, research is generally driven by intellectual problems rather than political interests, where student political engagement is very much driven by their own problems and interests, and where the vast majority of academics, in my own experience, are not particularly political or ideological.”

Nevertheless, this issue of perceived left-liberal “bias” matters. Daily Mail columnist Tom Utley responded to the Adam Smith Institute report with a piece that said:Why should hard-working taxpayers go on financing an academic elite that poisons [students’] impressionable minds with political correctness and fills them with idiotic, identical views that could ruin our nation?”

The most likely result of the election seems to be a Conservative government led by a prime minister who has expressed hostility to universities in the past, standing on a manifesto that seemingly questions their right to current funding levels and certainly questions their right to recruit current numbers of overseas students. People in higher education should be concerned by the narrative about the political culture of universities that is emerging in quarters of the Right.

There probably isn’t much that they can do about it, other than reaffirming the commitment to free debate and exchange of ideas on which universities are founded. Given our increasingly polarised and shrill political debate, that may not make any difference.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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