Yesterday, research Policy Exchange confirmed what many people have worried about for years: a growing intolerance towards different political opinions at universities. Its report, titled Academic Freedom in the UK, showed the extent to which viewpoint diversity is under threat at these institutions.
Researchers examined one of the largest representative samples of UK-based academics in recent years and found that only 54 per cent of them would feel comfortable sitting next to a Leave supporter at lunch, with a third seeking to avoid hiring Leavers in the first place.
Researchers also estimated that between “a third and half of those reviewing a grant bid would mark it lower if it took a right-wing perspective”. In general, grants were found to attract the strongest levels of discrimination.
In summarising their report, the authors wrote that: “Hostile or just uncomfortable attitudes signal to those subject to such discrimination that they should conceal their views and narrow their research questions to conform to prevailing norms”.
In other words, academics are starting to self-censor in order to get by.
Much of this reinforces a recent article for ConservativeHome by Alexander Woolf, who wrote about the difficulties of trying to succeed in academia should one not subscribe to socialist politics. He regretted that people like him were “unwelcome in the vast majority of political science departments in this country.”
The research also reinforces my own feature for The Telegraph last year, in which I spoke to undergraduates about their experiences at universities. “I have lost a couple of really good friendships as soon as they found out I’m Tory”, one 19-year-old told me. Another Conservative said he was “abused and threatened” after protesting university strikes on campus.
The UK – and indeed the US – has reached a deeply troubling state of affairs in regards to ideological insularity on campus. And something has to change.
Fundamentally, it’s a contradiction of universities’ whole raison d’être for them to suppress and demonise diverse viewpoints. How is anyone meant to write or think anything interesting when only one worldview counts? The woke one, as it is called.
It’s not good commercially, either, given the British reliance on international students. Why would anyone want to study here when this problem exists?
The research will be particularly dispiriting to the general public as a measure of how much the culture wars have escalated – and how much worse it could get.
Some have always claimed that this battle is exaggerated, but the fact that an academic would shun a sarnie with another – simply because they want to leave an economic union – is a terrible indictment on society.
And it’s not only that: it’s campuses banning speakers, and even clapping (because it’s not “inclusive”) to replace it with jazz hands, and so forth.
Some of this is in part due to the growth of arts degrees and others which teach youngsters to see the world through the sociological lens – as a series of systems stacked against them, that they must then dismantle.
Yes, the Conservatives got a fantastic majority last year, and many took this as a pushback woke ideology, which was a dominant feature of Corbyn’s Labour (and Starmer’s hasn’t been particularly better, mind you).
But these victories can seem immaterial when its proponents have made great strides in our academic institutions – and elsewhere.
Over lockdown one of the most obvious ways in which woke ideology exerted itself was through the statue-toppling campaign. What began as just protests in response to the horrific murder of George Floyd descended into anarchy.
We’ve also seen JK Rowling shunned in celebrity circles for having conventional views on biological sex.
More and more people will be chastised, as she’s been, if universities continue teaching in the way they do, while shunning anyone who offers alternative perspectives.
Policy Exchange’s report makes some important suggestions. It wants higher education institutions and the Government to do much more to ensure that all lawful speech is protected.
Gavin Williamson, too, has taken some incredibly important steps towards moderating the issue. Knowing how much many of these institutions need a Government bailout thanks to Covid-19, he has told them they must first prove their commitment to free speech. It’s a great incentive.
The more the Government can set out policies to counter the issue, the better; universities are, after all, providing society with the next lawyers, journalists, doctors and generation of professionals. We simply cannot have them siding with one ideology; it’s not healthy for democracy, at the very least.
But combatting the groupthink will take more than legislation. It will also need the Government to be much bolder in putting forward its values.
Yesterday it was noticeable that Johnson’s ratings on the ConHome survey had gone down – which I hypothesised was due to his new-found interventionist tendencies on obesity, and face masks, and the rest.
But some of this may also reflect the silent majority’s wish for the Government to get a bit louder on the culture wars. Ministers should, at least, speak up while they can.