This week the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), a hard right free market think tank, produced a report entitled ‘Lackademia: why do academics lean left?’ It claims – and treats as a problem – that “left-liberals” are “over-represented” in British academia. The methodology used to establish the political views of academics was risible, being based on a self-selecting survey (what survey methodologists call a ‘voodoo poll’) and this and other flaws were pointed out by John Morgan in the Times Higher Education.
Even if the
data were more robust, it is a bizarre notion that academics’ political views
should be ‘representative’ of the general population and that, if they are not,
they are, to use the report’s word “skewed”. Academics are not appointed for
their political views, or to represent anyone under some kind of proportional
representation system – and it would be disastrous if they were appointed in
this way, rather than on the basis of their academic expertise. But the choice
of the term ‘over-representation’ is deliberate, as signalled in the closing
line of the full report – it tries to take the language of diversity (in relation
to gender, class and ethnicity) in order to imply, although there is absolutely
no evidence of this, that those on the political right are victims of
discrimination so that whilst being qualified for academic posts they are
excluded from them.
The word ‘victims’
is significant in understanding what is going on here, which is a species of
the populist politics sweeping Western societies. That populism has at its
heart a victim narrative in which the ‘liberal elite’ (sometimes the ‘metropolitan
liberal elite’) has a fiendish power to do down the common sense of ‘the people’.
It is a nonsensical reading of where power lies, since the intellectual
apparatchiks of recent decades are more obviously the ASI and similar
neo-liberal bodies than anyone else, but after the events of the last year no
one can doubt its traction. Another part of the populist wave is its
‘experts’ being denounced and even compared to Nazis. So the ASI report
channels that strand of populism, too.
implications of the ASI report were quite apparent in the way it got picked up
in the media. Especially grotesque was a
spiteful piece by Tom Utley in, inevitably, the Daily Mail. It started with a long whine about having been put
down by his ‘left-wing’ tutor at Cambridge (like so many of the populist Right –
Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg - Utley is a product of ‘elite’ universities)
some forty years ago. The ‘put down’ was,
in fact, a correction of his misunderstanding about the subject under
discussion – as it happens John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ concept, discussed
on p. 146 of my book - although Utley clearly doesn’t realise this and it
apparently still rankles.
The rest of
the article is a series of tendentious assertions (e.g. cherry picked examples
of Oxbridge college heads) and smears (e.g. the ‘endless holidays’ of ‘dons’)
exhibiting such a degree of intellectual dishonesty and disregard for evidence
that one can at least agree that he was not very well-taught when at
university. These are then explicitly linked to populist politics by pointing out
that most academics opposed Brexit. That is hardly surprising: most
people with a degree and even more with a higher degree did.
The irony is
that British universities are extraordinarily successful in any terms they
might be judged. They perform far better proportionate to either the size of
the UK or the funding they receive than those of any other country in the world
in terms of placement in world rankings, where the UK has 34 of the top 200
universities, and quality
of research. They are intimately linked with medical and industrial
innovation and the communication of culture. Moreover, they
earn billions of pounds for the UK in student fee income (though this is
under threat from government immigration policies). To jeopardise this in
pursuit of ‘politically representative’ staffing would be, to coin a populist
phrase, political correctness gone mad. Would we want, say, biologists, to be
selected on the grounds of political representativeness rather than scientific
ability? Is that the Lysenkoist dream of Tom
Utley and the ASI? I fear that it might be.
universities should be defended on wider grounds than this. To the extent that
it is the case that they are bulwarks against populism then that is a good
thing in itself. The hallmark of populism is what we are learning to call
post-truth. The hallmark of universities is still that of a liberal
Enlightenment commitment to truth, evidence and reason (that is so even when
academics interrogate and critique the liberal Enlightenment). So it is small
wonder that they are under attack from populists, and that is all the more
reason to hold on tight to what they embody and represent.