By Allister Heath8:56PM GMT 02 Dec 2015 Comments360 Comments
There was a time, not that long ago, when universities embodied the best of Western civilisation. Having broken away from their narrowly theological and often obscurantist past, they thrived during much of the 20th century, dedicating themselves to research, debate and learning. They were, at their best, cosmopolitan in outlook before the rest of society, beacons of genuine diversity and home to the greatest of thinkers.
But with a few brilliant and wonderful exceptions, they are now slowly drifting back to their pre-19th century role as a purveyor of a single, illiberal world view. Instead of opening the minds of young people by exposing them to every kind of idea and every sort of controversy, they are losing their nerve, pandering to destructive activists who would rather they serve up a thin, tightly controlled and unchallenging intellectual gruel. Rather than pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, most universities now churn out dreary, predictable research that nobody reads.
"There was a time when universities set the political agenda; today, too many appear to be mere angry onlookers, giant Left-wing content factories with little practical relevance"
The real crisis is in the humanities and the social sciences; there is still much great work carried out in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine, of course, with plenty of British university departments continuing to distinguish themselves. Yet the overall mood across UK and American universities has become more authoritarian and less rational. Non-scientific areas of research have gone shockingly stale.
Derek Bok’s Higher Education in America, which is making waves, contains many staggering revelations which apply just as much to British institutions. No fewer than 98 per cent of academic papers in the arts and humanities are never cited in any subsequent research. The same is true of three quarters of social science research: the papers must be statistically dubious, trapped in flawed paradigms or obsessed with irrelevant minutia. There are now at least 100,000 academic journals worldwide – “publish or perish” has been pushed well past breaking point. It is a horrendous waste of so many intelligent people’s time and so many students’ money.
One reason why so much of this research disappears without trace is its ideological uniformity. Universities have become almost completely detached politically from the rest of society. The overwhelming majority of academics are now firmly on the Left; the academic echo-chamber is even more stultifying than Twitter’s. Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, the experts in this field, calculated that just 9.2 per cent of US academics are conservative, with 44 per cent describing themselves as liberals and 46 per cent as moderates.
In political science, history and sociology, the authors find that there are around 19 Democratic academics for every Republican. It is only because a larger minority of business and medical school academics are conservatives that the overall figure isn’t even more skewed. This compares with a conservative share of 28 per cent in 1972, a figure which at the time was already seen as low. The situation isn’t any better in Britain. Academia has become core territory for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and the few remaining Tory lecturers often hide their views for fear that their career prospects will be damaged.
This stultifying ideological conformity has predictably moved out of the classroom. American universities are being engulfed by another wave of extreme political correctness, and our own universities have also caught the disease. Some are allowing themselves to be bullied into banishing dissenting visitors from campuses, undermining a key plank of the university experience. The aim is the “non-platforming” of any speaker that might end up upsetting various groups (though communist speakers that could frighten young capitalists are never included, for some reason). The most dangerous new concept is that of “trigger warnings” that tip off 18- or 20-year-olds before they are exposed to an opinion that may upset them or trigger anxiety or panic, with universities turned into “safe spaces” that protect them from any of this. The aim is to sanitise the world.
Anthony Glees of the University of Buckingham has been shouted down at other universities when trying to discuss the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy; a new generation of students will not tolerate even hearing, let alone listening to, differing viewpoints. But it’s not only centre-Right thinkers who are being targeted: the new Lefties are so despotic that they are even turning on their own. There have been attempts to ban Germaine Greer from speaking because of her views on transgender women. Yet the whole point of a truly liberal education is to learn to grapple with every shade of opinion. How, in such circumstances, can academia hope to be taken seriously? There was a time when universities set the political agenda; today, too many appear to be mere angry onlookers, giant Left-wing content factories with little practical relevance.
The great economic debates of the 20th century were conducted from university common rooms. Keynes was at Cambridge when he wrote The General Theory; F. A. Hayek was at the LSE when he penned his counterblasts. In the Seventies and Eighties, ideas developed at the University of Chicago were key to the Thatcherite counter-revolution. Yet the universities had little useful to say about the financial crisis. In fact, special advisers, campaigners, civil servants, in-house think-tank researchers, lobby groups, the military and even journalists are to be blamed or credited for almost every new policy in every area since at least 2010.
"Our institutions of higher education owe it to the country and their students to get their act together"
Michael Gove’s former team argues that teacher-bloggers were more influential on the past five years’ of policy than all university education departments combined. Welfare reform has also been developed outside of the university system, as have the Treasury’s tax and spending changes. The Brexit debate is proceeding with almost zero academic input, as is our policy on Syria and terrorism. This is terribly sad: it would make so much more sense if governments of all shades could draw on helpful, first-rate academic brains; there would certainly be fewer mistakes.
Our institutions of higher education owe it to the country and their students to get their act together. They must refocus on teaching and real research. They need to become more intellectually diverse, and hire people of all political persuasions. Allowing people to think and speak freely is the best way to drive progress: it beggars belief that so many of our universities have forgotten such a basic truth.