The cosmopolitan sophisticates in the Ivory Towers made up their minds long ago. Brexit was a dreadful prospect, associated with backwardness and bigotry. Many universities officially declared their support for Remain, while in others the message was of unwritten clarity: EU good, Brexit bad.
Looking back on the past four years, the conduct of universities should come under scrutiny. Brexit exposed underlying problems of intolerance, bias and censorship that have crept by stealth into the higher seats of learning.
Fall of moral standing
In a free society, citizens should be able to express their opinions. Academics have as much right as anyone else, and they certainly didn’t hold back in their contempt for a democratic mandate of 17.4 million people. Daily rants on Twitter or fulminations in the media revealed the level of disdain. Typical was Brian Dillon, professor of creative writing at the Royal College of Art, who pronounced that Brexit is ‘the result of a shameless choice by many people – the vaunted People and their Freedonian masters [sic] – to pursue xenophobia, racism and outright fascism. All the circumstantial explanations aside, you have to choose to be a bigot too’. Abandoning scholarly detachment and intellectual rigour, however, has almost certainly cost the universities a lot of the respect they once may have held with the general public.
A pedestal at a prestigious university does not come easily. Decades of research, teaching, conference speeches and media appearances earn a chair in a particular discipline, and the status of expert. Yet with 90 per cent of university staff reputedly backing Remain, ‘expertise’ became the dubious domain of an echo chamber. Instead of experts who leant towards Remain, sceptical listeners heard Remainers exploiting the claim to expertise. Asserting their political views with such vehemence, many scholars often came to confuse conviction with infallibility.
With few exceptions, academics acted not as dispassionate observers and analysts but as players in the anti-Brexit team. Attributing the 2016 referendum vote to misinformation and jingoistic nostalgia rendered their judgement suspect in the eyes of many voters. Political scientists and economists contributed vociferously to ‘Project Fear’. Prophesises foretold job losses, crises, shortages of everything from medicines to Mars bars, and an outbreak of super-gonorrhoea.
Alarmism, catastrophism, and most damagingly of all, a sustained record of predictive failure in the Brexit debate, has undermined the status of the academic as an authoritative voice.
Tainted teaching and research
Predetermined viewpoints made their way into research. Studies emanating from the universities purported to show that uninformed voters with low levels of education caused Brexit. They were hoodwinked by lies and Russian bots, and thus didn’t know what they were voting for.
These denigrating assertions fed a delusion of objectivity, leading to views like those expressed by Professor Richard Dawkins, who characterised Brexit voters as ‘ignorant’ and ‘misled’. Elsewhere, teaching standards were compromised. For example, in a widely shared image, the projected backdrop for a politics lecture at Warwick stated ‘Brexit is shit’ (apparently to the delight of students).
Universities should be places where prejudices are challenged. It is lamentable that research and teaching on Brexit turned universities into ideological reinforcement centres rather than places where different ideas can be aired and discussed. Elsewhere it is a matter of regret, if not a public policy concern, that quasi-eugenics – with the notion of Leave voters as inferior stock – has reappeared in intellectual discourse.
The moral reputation of universities is founded to a greater degree on the premise that they are forums where multiple viewpoints can be expressed, examined and tested without hazard to the inquirer. This proposition itself rests on the assumption that universities are repositories of, and receptive towards, varied forms of thought. Survey data suggesting that university staff defaulted overwhelmingly towards Remain, however, points to an even more serious problem, which is the general decline of viewpoint diversity on campus.
Polling evidence from the Times Higher Education Supplement in 2019 indicates that scarcely 8 per cent of academics identify as right of centre (the percentage is even smaller in the humanities and social sciences). Does anyone stop to think whether such remarkable levels of uniformity are intellectually healthy?
The lack of viewpoint plurality leads to a condition where academics regard themselves not as facilitators of thought but as arbiters of thought: the curators of ‘correct’ opinions. The effect is to negate the very essence of a university as a sphere of intellectual tolerance.
Casting out bad spells
Most scholars and students who voted Leave kept their decision private lest they risked an angry reaction. One of us was called as a ‘Little Englander’; the other was asked ‘did you really go to university?’
Derision, social exclusion and verbal abuse were the minimum that a Leave voter on campus could anticipate. Anyone daring to voice support for Brexit on, say, Twitter risked incurring the wrath of zealots. On discovering that the offender worked in a university, they would ask ‘How is this guy allowed to teach students?’ An ideologically sympathetic hierarchy would invariably respond with an investigation. Heretics could be cast out of academic or administrative roles. Leavers ended up being tried by Remain institutions, while insults by ultra-Remainers were rarely, if ever, reprimanded.
Wrong-think, of course, is not confined to Brexit. Staff and students are sanctioned for deviating from orthodoxy on party politics, climate change and transgenderism. In Critic magazine, the journalist Toby Young described a political debate at Durham University in November 2019 in which he was slandered as a ‘paedophile’ by the co-chair of the university’s Labour Club. Later, after being verbally abused by a hostile mob, he talked to a student who had been persecuted and physically assaulted for having unpalatable (i.e. mainstream conservative) opinions. Sadly, Durham is not the only university where bullies reign, though the cloud has a silver lining in that Young’s experience bolstered his resolve to launch the Free Speech Union.
Failure of academic leadership
Many of the problems identified so far illustrate the failures of academic leadership. The evolution over the last two decades of the corporate university, obsessed with metrics, income and branding has bred a tier of administrators lacking in awareness of the university as a liberal project. Seeing little incentive to rein in the excesses of their student paying customers, and having no innate attachment to, or understanding of, notions like a community of scholars dedicated to the free exchange of ideas, they have no motivation to uphold traditional standards of rigour: standards that might have ensured a more thoughtful and measured response to the Brexit debate.
Like all corporations that lack any real competition, the consequences are the imposition of ever more top-down, initiative throttling, bureaucracy enabled by compliant middle managers only too willing to stifle independent thought or snuff out any hints of ‘resistance’. The results can be seen not only in enrichment for those at the top, and cost cutting for those below, but also grade inflation, debased degrees, and the systematic fall of British universities in the international rankings of quality and reputation.
The past few years have proved curious but revelatory for the universities. Brexit made manifest problems that were brewing away under the surface. At best, Brexit exposed universities as institutionally biased. At worst, they have been revealed as badly led, declining in standards and prestige, and with a penchant for persecuting those not in alignment with the ideological orthodoxy.
In becoming partisan advocates, with some Vice Chancellors openly endorsing campaigns for a ‘people’s vote’ or a revocation of Brexit, universities contributed substantially to the polarisation of society. To the wider public they have succeeded only in confirming that they are arrogant, out-of-touch and, beyond some of the hard sciences, to be places where one goes to receive training in mind narrowing, not mind opening.
Are universities capable of any self-examination? The evidence is doubtful. Yet, without serious reflection universities will be unable to recover their reputations. If that happens they are likely only to bring down the external scrutiny of government upon themselves. People will not forget easily the divisive role the universities played in this pivotal episode in British history.
Professor M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory, King’s College London; Dr Niall McCrae is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health, King’s College London.