UK universities could increasingly find themselves in the firing line as Nigel Farage aims to build a wider right-wing populist movement in the wake of the European elections, academics have warned.
The Brexit Party leader has in recent months repeatedly attacked UK universities and their staff, accusing them of “huge left-wing bias” and of “brainwashing” students, and claiming that Brexit-supporting students had been “marked down” and abused by their lecturers. He targeted universities before a cheering crowd at one of his party’s rallies earlier this month, in an appearance on Fox News earlier this year and on the LBC programme he hosts.
Mr Farage was seen as likely to gain strength following the European elections, which may raise concerns that his attacks on universities – which import US conservative narratives about perceived left-wing “indoctrination” in colleges, as right-wing populist Thierry Baudet has done in the Netherlands – could undermine public trust in higher education.
Mr Farage may be building on the electoral divide between non-graduates and graduates, with levels of education often viewed as a determining factor in support for, or opposition to, Brexit and Donald Trump.
At a Brexit Party rally in Fylde, Mr Farage was asked what more could be done to bring more young people over to support Brexit.
“One of the good things to do would be to stop the constant bias, prejudice and brainwashing that is going on in British universities,” he said. “Something needs to be done about that. It’s outrageous, outrageous, that students are marked down, that students are held up to ridicule, because they happen to support Brexit.
“I think something is rotten in education. We should be teaching young people critical thinking: they should be making up their own minds on things, not being indoctrinated.”
During an appearance on Fox News in February to discuss his support for Turning Point UK – an offshoot of a US organisation that aims to establish a radical right presence among students – Mr Farage said he saw “huge left-wing bias” in UK universities.
“I see young people’s minds being poisoned against the idea of the existence of nation states, against the idea of sensible border controls,” he added. “And I know lots of students that I’ve met who say, ‘Nigel, we’re scared to say what we think because of the abuse we’ll get from professors and our fellow pupils.’ ”
He continued: “I really want to go further than this [Turning Point UK]. Ultimately, it seems to me the job of the university is to teach critical thinking, to teach young people ‘here’s a problem, here are two possible solutions…you make your own mind up’. And that is where our system needs to get back to.”
In August 2018, half an edition of Mr Farage’s LBC programme was devoted to discussion surrounding a Sutton Trust survey showing a decline in the number of young people who think it is important to go to university.
Mr Farage argued that too many young people were entering university. He highlighted his own experience, going straight from the private Dulwich College into a career as a commodities trader.
Mr Farage speculated on whether “18-year-olds who have got…a centre-right disposition on the world maybe think, ‘I can’t bear the thought of going to university because of the way they are going to speak to me, because of the way they are going to deal with me’.”
He also said: “I genuinely think we are virtually brainwashing young people through our universities. I think that, actually, is putting some conservative-minded people off going to university.”
Elisabeth Carter, senior lecturer in politics at Keele University, whose 2005 book The Extreme Right in Western Europe: Success or Failure? is regarded as a key text in populism studies, said: “Attacks on universities make ‘good sense’ in the whole rhetoric that Farage employs and in the whole ideology embraced by Ukip, the Brexit Party and other like-minded parties elsewhere.”
Populism pitted “the elite” against “the people” – or a “homogenous” construction of such, Dr Carter stressed.
Universities “are full of experts…who are not part of the ‘common people’ ”, Dr Carter continued. Additionally, universities are seen by right-wing populists “as bastions of left-wing thought, or at least liberal thought, which clearly the populists…hate”, she added.
And there is “also, of course, a specific Brexit dimension to all this too” because “the majority of academic and university staff are clearly opposed to Brexit”, Dr Carter said.
All this made universities “easy targets” for Mr Farage and politicians like him, she added.
Paul Cottrell, national head of democratic services at the University and College Union, said: “Critical thinking and challenging ideas are the cornerstones of a university education, and it is no wonder that charlatans such as Nigel Farage fear this kind of scrutiny.”
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