Adam Smith Institute ‘lurch to the left’ report: flimsy figures

Thinktank conflates THE online opinion survey with separate data, John Morgan writes

March 2, 2017
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I recently wrote a piece for Times Higher Education suggesting that, as populism gains in strength, US “culture wars” attacks on universities as systematically biased against right-wing academics and students are likely to intensify and to spread to other nations.

The piece appeared today; on the same day, The Times ran a piece based on a report from the Adam Smith Institute about “overrepresentation” of left-liberal views among UK academics, under the headline “Academia’s lurch to the left raises concerns for campus free speech”.

The report from the Adam Smith Institute, which describes itself as a thinktank promoting neoliberal and free market ideas, has been covered by The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, City AM, The Australian and Huffington Post.

The report, titled “Lackademia: Why Do Academics Lean Left?”, claims that “evidence suggests the overrepresentation of left-liberal views may have increased since the 1960s”.

While it may be true that academics are generally more slanted towards the left than they were in previous decades, the report’s evidence for this claim does not stand up to scrutiny. And I speak as one of the main sources of evidence cited by the report, written by Noah Carl, a PhD student at Nuffield College, Oxford.

The report’s sole evidence for the current political leanings of British academics is a THE online survey published prior to the 2015 general election, which asked UK university staff how they were planning to vote. The survey gained 1,019 responses – and my article on the results carried the major caveat that the survey was self-selecting (a caveat Carl repeats).  

The survey found that 46 per cent of UK university staff planned to vote Labour, followed by Green (22 per cent), Tory (11 per cent), Lib Dem (9 per cent) and Scottish National Party (6 per cent).

Not only is this 2015 self-selecting survey the sole evidence cited by the Adam Smith Institute report to judge the current balance of political opinion in British academia, it produces a table in which those THE figures are conflated with totally separate figures on political party support among academics in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s gathered by the late A. H. Halsey in his 1995 book Decline of Donnish Dominion.

I referred to the Halsey figures in my original THE article after Higher Education Policy Institute director Nick Hillman drew them to my attention (it’s nice Carl was reading so closely).

The Times reproduces the table conflating the Halsey-THE figures as evidence for its headline’s “lurch to the left” claim.

Carl writes in his report: “It is important to be aware that Halsey sampled his respondents differently to the THE, and posed a slightly different question, which means the comparison over time should be treated with a certain amount of caution.”

I’ll say.

Using a self-selecting survey as a rough guide to possible voting patterns in a forthcoming election is one thing. It is another to conflate that survey with totally separate data and use this flimsy base to make sweeping judgements, as Carl does in suggesting that growing “ideological homogeneity” has led to “the trend towards curtailments of free speech on university campuses” or that it “has arguably led to systematic biases in scholarship”. There is no evidence in his report that this is true.

That British academics tend towards the left is pretty obvious and unsurprising. A sector that has until now not been marketised will attract people who don’t want to work in a marketised sector (although the government is now seeking to create a higher education market in England).

It would be intriguing to see some genuine evidence about the experiences of right-wing academics in British academia.

But Carl’s wafer-thin report looks like an attempt to import a US-style campus culture war into the UK. I would expect plenty more such attempts in the coming months and years.

Such attacks may further discourage right-leaning people from entering academia by telling them they will suffer from bias and discrimination – as the conservative authors of Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive Academy have argued in the US.

And in the UK, where government has a lot more power over universities than in the US, campus culture wars are likely to culminate in some ugly attacks by politicians that threaten universities’ and academics’ vital autonomy in what they teach and research.

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Reader's comments (1)

And now Cambridge has sacked Noah Carl. I hold no brief for him or his views, but as a liberal I am uneasy about that, to say the least. Will be interesting to see how THE covers this....