Saturday, 4 March 2017

In praise of universities

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 anti-intellectualism, with ‘experts’ being denounced and even compared to Nazis. So the ASI report channels that strand of populism, too.

The populist 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.

But 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.

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