Strategies for success in the Brexit ‘culture wars’

Shift to a political divide based on identity and values requires response from universities, experts suggest

November 6, 2017
British Remainers
Source: Alamy
Painted as the enemy: the recent attacks on UK universities are a consequence of higher education being on the losing side of Brexit, sector experts have suggested

“Our Remainer Universities”, roared the headline on the front page of the Daily Mail as it “uncovered” various hastily assembled examples of “anti-Brexit bias at some of Britain’s best-known universities”. For perhaps the first time, the UK’s universities as whole institutions – not just their leadership, but their staff, teaching and entire ethos – found themselves unwillingly locked in the chilly embrace of the nation’s most politically influential newspaper as it sunk its fangs into their necks.

Earlier this year, Times Higher Education published a couple of articles suggesting that “campus culture wars” were beginning to spread beyond their traditional home of the US. There was the case of the Dutch parliament passing a motion to hold an inquiry into supposed bias against conservatives on campuses, and neoliberal thinktank the Adam Smith Institute publishing a report finding “evidence” that “the overrepresentation of left-liberal views may have increased since the 1960s” in UK universities.

In the US, the phrase “culture wars” is commonly used to refer to a political shift that began in the 1960s, whereby key divides in political debate became less around class or economics, and more based around cultural identity and values.

If Brexit has triggered such a shift in Britain, as some believe that it has, then universities in the UK may feel the consequences as they have in the US – in public trust, perhaps even in their funding. But how should they respond?

Understanding the issue starts with looking to the US, the homeland of campus culture wars. Hostility to universities has intensified since the election of Donald Trump, many believe, notably in the intense debates over whether conservative and hard-right speakers are being blocked from speaking on campuses by left-wing students and faculty.

Andrew Hartman, author of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, said that the predominance of “multicultural and liberal attitudes” on US campuses “has long been the reason why conservatives in the US attack universities – because as crucial national cultural institutions they no longer represent the conservative vision of America”.

Professor Hartman, professor of history at Illinois State University, added that Trump is a “culture warrior” to his supporters “and his election has emboldened them along a number of fronts, including returning to attacking the universities with vehemence the likes of which we haven’t seen since the early 1990s”. In July, the Pew Research Center reported on a sharp rise in the proportion of Republican voters saying that universities and colleges have a “negative effect” on the nation – with 58 per cent of them holding that opinion.

Austerity in state budgets since the financial crisis has seen public university funding slashed. “States like Wisconsin, North Carolina and my state of Illinois have suffered serious political and economic crises and in an effort to cut spending have focused on higher education,” said Professor Hartman. “Attacking the very legitimacy of higher education has helped advance these budget cuts.” 

In the UK, the European Union referendum “was less a traditional left-right battle, and more about identity and values (liberalism vs authoritarianism),” said a 2016 report from the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), titled ‘Understanding the Leave Vote’. “It is a strong sign that the so-called ‘culture wars’ of the US have arrived in Great Britain in earnest.”

The report was based on surveys asking voters for the basis of their decisions in the EU referendum, including a NatCen telephone survey that followed up with participants in the British Social Attitudes survey.

Kirby Swales, director of NatCen’s survey centre and author of the report, said that survey participants were asked questions such as “do you think Britain has got better or worse in the last 10 years? Do you have a strong sense of national identity?” and then placed on a “liberal-authoritarian” scale.

He added: “You can see how that element of ‘do you believe in a sense of British values, the traditionally strong order’ is playing out in this debate around universities; people feeling quite distant from the metropolitan liberal elite. I know that’s how the Daily Mail is clearly wanting to position it – but you can see how it’s connected to what drove the Leave campaign to attract support.”

Allied to the fact that levels of education have been clearly shown to have a clear correlation to the position of voters on Brexit (with graduates the most likely to back Remain), universities – as generally liberal, cosmopolitan, internationalist institutions – are left in a potentially difficult position in terms of how they may be perceived by, or portrayed to, Leave voters.

The Mail article was a transparent attempt to shift the media and political debate, following headline coverage of the letter sent to universities by pro-Brexit Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris, asking vice-chancellors to provide him with details of professors teaching Brexit and of what they are teaching, a Brexit story in which universities had the sympathetic role.

But the fact that both Mr Heaton-Harris and the Mail saw political mileage in trying to attack universities over Brexit is significant. This followed on from long-running coverage in the Mail and other right-leaning newspapers in the past couple of years, notably the Daily Telegraph and The Times, about perceived attempts to suppress free speech on campus by left-wing students and hostile reporting on campus movements such as Rhodes Must Fall at the University of Oxford.

These attacks from the right all come at a very bad time for universities – with Theresa May now having announced a “major review of university funding”. Whether that review goes ahead still appears to be the subject of battles within government. But if it did, a Conservative government seeing values and identity as the core of its appeal might wish to rebalance funding away from higher education and towards the further, vocational and technical education sectors that it may see – rightly or wrongly – as more directly benefiting the economically “left behind” who voted for Brexit. Perhaps there may be a link between culture wars and university funding, as Professor Hartman believes there has been in several US state budgets.

“Blaming the media is a bad strategy,” said Sir David Bell, the University of Reading vice-chancellor, whose previous role as permanent secretary in the Department for Education gives him an intimate knowledge of the workings of Whitehall.

“On the Brexit issue you would have to say this is a matter of national significance; it’s not surprising that universities are being considered as part of the wider piece about how the country is going to react,” he added.

On the funding question, Sir David’s experience in Whitehall taught him that while ministers may listen to media coverage as a “proxy” for public opinion, they often also rely on feedback from their constituents at surgeries and through letters – and that type of public opinion gauge can often be silent on an issue that may be causing newspapers the utmost excitement.

Instead, Sir David emphasised that “universities still retain a very high degree of agency when it comes to determining what it is that they do”. His message on how universities should approach government on funding is that “it undermines our case if we overreact to media comment and commentary or we try to put out there apocalyptic scenarios about what’s going to happen to British universities. We should make the case on the basis of the evidence – the evidence is strong that universities continue to make a really powerful economic and social impact, nationally, regionally and locally.”

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, suggested that newspaper attacks over Brexit are “a consequence of higher education being on the losing side of the EU referendum” and “higher levels of education being so clearly correlated with the vote as well as universities being perceived as being full of Remain supporters – all of which makes universities an ‘obvious target’.”

Professor Westwood said that this added up to “an existential crisis for universities, especially when rolled up into populist disregard for evidence and experts”.

Providing a narrative about why universities matter in the era of Brexit politics “does take us straight back into ‘community’ and ‘civic’ and a need to rebuild public consent for what we are, what we do and the fact that we cost quite a lot of money to run properly”, he said.

In turn, Professor Westwood continued, that “means demonstrating to a sceptical public that we matter to them even in the places we don't think about much. So there might not be a university in Barnsley, Dudley or Southend but we train their teachers, nurses, doctors and emergency services, and we invent treatments for cancer, diabetes [and other illnesses] too.”

He said that the heart of the matter is “all about public consent really”; it is through that and “rethinking our civic and community role” that such consent can be “rebuilt” and universities can “re-engage sceptical, critical politicians along the way”. He suggested that it is “not about fighting new culture wars, it’s about demonstrating our use and benefit to both sides.”

Glyn Davis, the University of Melbourne vice-chancellor, came to a similar conclusion about local and regional benefits being the way out of current travails for universities in the UK and Australia, in a recent speech to the UPP Foundation in London.

“We will not win hearts and minds through shouting matches with cultural warriors intent on outrage,” he told THE. “Instead, a university can lead through patient demonstration of its values in action – scholarly inquiry, free and open debate, analysis and reason in response to passion.”

That may be so, but if Brexit has brought a shift towards a “culture wars” approach to politics, British universities will continue to find themselves on the front line.


Print headline: Are UK universities on the front line of a Brexit ‘culture war’?

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