UK public ‘don’t see universities as a front line in culture wars’

Ex-pollster who leads Policy Institute at King’s sees public support for universities enduring despite culture wars angst

July 27, 2021
Battle reenactment
Source: Getty
Blurred battle lines: despite media focus, the UK public do not seem to share the US’ obsession with culture conflict

If you listen to certain British newspapers or Westminster politicians, you might have got the idea that universities are a major battleground in the “culture wars”: threatening free speech, “left-wing madrasas”, divisive forces that suck graduates into their metropolitan liberal orbit while leaving non-graduates to drift in a void.

However, an extensive survey on perceptions of culture wars in the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote suggests that “there’s not a great deal of awareness or particular focus among the UK public about universities being in the front line of this”, according to Bobby Duffy, professor of public policy and director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, and a former managing director of public affairs for pollsters Ipsos MORI.

There are plentiful implications for universities in the major research series on culture wars concluded last month by researchers at the Policy Institute and Ipsos MORI, carried out in the light of increased British media focus on a concept originating in the US, and involving a survey of about 2,800 UK adults, international surveys and media analysis, plus reviews of academic literature.

Although real social and political issues divide opinion, the example of the US – where the Republicans and Fox News have promoted culture wars, including via an intense focus on campus politics – shows that “you can help push yourselves down this road” towards “implacable conflict” between “mega identities” where it becomes “really difficult to compromise”, said Professor Duffy.

The research found that while there has been a surge in media discussion of culture wars in the UK, “it’s less clear that the public are as interested or engaged in the debate”.

For example, when asked which issues they think of when the phrase “culture wars” is used, just 0.1 per cent of UK survey respondents cited no platforming in universities, one of a range of findings suggesting that “only tiny minorities associate culture wars with many of the sorts of issues that have been prominent in UK media coverage of this area”.

And there was “little sign that the public see university professors as left wing”, the research suggested; among survey respondents who did not go to university, about one in five (18 per cent) thinks professors mostly have left-wing views, compared with about two in five (42 per cent) who think they tend to have a mix of different political opinions.

Meanwhile, the survey found just 5 per cent of respondents thought there was a “great deal” of tension between people with a university degree and those without, putting that divide 12th out of 13 social divides the survey asked about (Leave-Remain and rich-poor were rated as the greatest sources of tension).

Having reanalysed British Social Attitudes survey data on public attitudes to higher education for his forthcoming book on generational divides, Generations, Professor Duffy thought that could stem from the fact that there is “still very strong support among the public for increasing or maintaining higher education access for young people”.

He added that many people who did not attend university see it “as a good thing and a sign of progress” when their children or grandchildren do “rather than something that’s creating division”.

The divide between those with and those without degrees is thus “not the same as some other socio-demographic divides; actually, you’re aspiring to that for your own family in many ways”, he continued.

Overall, the Policy Institute and Ipsos MORI study concluded that “there is (as yet) no comparable political identity” in the UK “to the Republican/Democratic identity” driving culture wars in the US, but that those who identify with the Conservatives or Labour, or one side on Brexit, “do show very large differences on some cultural perspectives”, which could be “a possible basis to build intractable political divisions based on broad cultural identities, particularly if there is top-down encouragement of cultural division, from any side”.

Asked what advice he would offer to universities on their responses to the culture wars, Professor Duffy said that it was “the same as the report overall…that we shouldn’t be panicking or talking this up too much because actually when you look at the data, people are not nearly as divided or as agitated” as “the extreme examples” that “travel further fastest on social media and media” would suggest.

However, that “doesn’t mean we should dismiss it as an important thing to engage with because it is these kinds of cultural change and tension [that] are really important”, he said.

“The main thing from universities’ point of view is to engage openly in that and be the place where you can have open debates on complex subjects,” added Professor Duffy. “That is very in line with where the public are on this.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

"UK public ‘don’t see universities as a front line in culture wars’" then they are bloody fools, worse than front lines they are the behind the lines indoctrination centres where teachers are trained to undermine parents and forward the cause. The left knowns that the only way they can 'win' is to take future generations and train them young, as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin said "Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted".

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