UK academics ‘discriminate against political opposites’ – survey

Survey of UK academics finds both left and right discriminate against each other in hiring, funding and publishing decisions, leading to self-censorship across the sector

August 3, 2020
Anti-Brexit protest
Source: iStock

A survey has suggested that a third of academics who supported remain in the UK’s European Union referendum would seek to avoid hiring a known leave supporter, while nearly a quarter of right-wing academics would rate a paper lower if it had a left-wing perspective.

The thinktank Policy Exchange commissioned a YouGov poll of 820 UK academics, of whom 484 were currently employed and 336 were retired staff, and found that academics on both sides of the political divide discriminated against each other when it came to decisions on grant applications, promotions and publications.

The report authors estimated that between a third and a half of left-wingers reviewing a grant bid would mark it lower if it took a right-wing perspective, while 23 per cent of right-wing academics would rate an academic paper less favourably if it adopted a left-wing perspective.

About a third of academics who voted remain are likely to discriminate against a leaver in job appointments, the report authors add. A similar proportion of leave-voting academics would be likely to appoint a centrist with a weaker track record over someone on the left, they estimated.

“It is likely that academics do not discriminate more than other professions, nor does left discriminate more than right,” according to the authors.

In fact, 50 per cent of those on the right would discriminate in favour of a leave supporter over a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn in a job appointment when two candidates are equal; in the same situation, 40 per cent of those on the left would discriminate in favour of the Corbyn supporter.

However, according to the report, as there is a smaller share of right-wing and leave supporters in academia, they are more likely to find themselves discriminated against.

In the sample, 53 per cent identified as left, 35 per cent as centrist, and 9 per cent as right.

According to the report, this has led academics to engage in self-censorship, particularly those on the right or leave supporters. If found that one in four academics reported feeling unable to express their views in university because they were afraid of disagreeing with their peers.

The report also found that 63 per cent of the “very right” and 44 per cent of the “fairly right” perceived there to be a hostile environment to their beliefs, compared with 16 per cent for the “very left” and 8 per cent for the “fairly left”.

It showed that 32 per cent of the “right” had refrained from airing their views in teaching or research, and 15 per cent of centrists agreed, while 10 per cent of the “fairly left” and 15 per cent of the “very left” agreed.

Among right-leaning staff currently teaching in the social sciences and humanities, the share who report having self-censored was 50 per cent.

However, the authors write that “there is, reassuringly, little support among most academics for dismissal campaigns against colleagues”.

For any given potential campaign, those who are opposed to a dismissal are likely to outnumber those in favour by eight to one, the survey showed.

The report recommends the creation of a director for academic freedom in the Office for Students, backed up by an academic freedom bill.

The role would have “ombudsman powers with responsibility for ensuring universities’ compliance with the public interest governance conditions concerning academic freedom and freedom of speech” and would be able to investigate allegations that an institution has violated academic freedom and freedom of speech guidance, the report says. Academic freedom and freedom of speech in universities should be “explicit in the law”, the authors write.

The OfS recently said that it would issue regulatory guidance on both this autumn.

The paper also raises the idea of an academic freedom charter organisation – independent of government – that would award marks to universities for their commitment to political anti-discrimination and viewpoint diversity.

Remi Adekoya, a university teacher in political economy at the University of Sheffield, one of the co-authors of the paper, said: “Britain’s universities are world-leading and make major contributions to the national economy, to local growth in their cities and regions, and to social mobility. They enhance and support the creative, intellectual and cultural life of the country. But they will founder if the principle of academic freedom – the idea that individual scholars and scientists should be free to research, teach and contribute to public debate without fear or favour – continues to face significant challenges in practice.”

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that the idea that academic freedom was under threat was a “myth”.

“The main concern our members express is not with thinktank-inspired bogeyman, but with the current government’s wish to police what can and cannot be taught at university,” she said.

A Universities UK spokesman said: “Academic freedom and freedom of speech are critical to the success of UK higher education, and universities take seriously their legal obligations on both. Robustly protecting these characteristics in a constantly evolving world is of the utmost importance to universities.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

The results clearly show that expressing any view leaning away from the increasingly far-left academy is a big problem. The fact the article headline suggests the problem is proportionate to both sides of the spectrum is further evidence of the problem, and of the pervasive denial. As someone who’s views have always been centre-left, I find the idea that my putting forth left-leaning view would be as problematic as putting forth a right-leaning or even centrist view laughable. The article would be more honest if it framed the story along those lines.
Being brought up in a RED Communist household now softened by years of 'real world' experience holding predominately a centre-left position, I view the increasingly crazy behaviours of the University sector Maoist's and Neo-Marxist's and their ideologies with great concern. Silencing even those who are left of centre has become the norm, this has several dangers: 1. Those on the extreme right hide and plot, this includes those to whom the lefts identarian ideology gifts power in exchange for votes/short term support (this short-sightedness is I suspect due to target fixation, beating the tories/right at the ballot box, and the mistaken belief of many on the left that once in power they will be able to control them). 2. Once revolutions occur the 'intellectual's' are usually one of the first groups sent for re-education, or 'disposal' to the gulags, the left as ever seem unable to discuss the mass slaughter Communism has wrought over the last century, how many of the extreme left think they will be the ones who consign 'others' but not themselves to such a fate? Hearing those to the right of centre and debating with them is essential, to understand them and grow your own abilities, screaming at them, silencing them or even cancelling them proves simply intellectual weakness and an inability to reason, the constant appeal to emotion without reason of many on the left doesn't 'win' the argument. Investigation and Study "It is necessary to investigate both the facts and the history of a problem in order to study and understand it" Quotation from Chairman Mao Tse-tung's "Little Red Book".
This unwillingness to express ideas is an unwelcome reminder of the rise of social media, in particular Twitter, where it's viewed as acceptable to scream personal abuse and harass anyone who expresses an opinion that differs in the slightest from your own, rather than actually go to the effort of entering into debate. It's very sad to see these attitudes intruding into the academy, which ought to be all about expressing ideas and arguing their merits in the light of supporting evidence.

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