he University of Sheffield's Diamond building

Death by degrees

The dream of the university is being killed by greed, dogma and bureaucracy


This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

What is the point of the British university? Not long ago this question would have been ridiculous: universities allow the expert to instruct the gifted, to the benefit of both the individual and society at large. Ask now, however, and you are greeted by laughter, or despair.

Students are not the problem

In the contemporary university, students pay handsomely for degrees in the confident expectation of Firsts or Upper-Seconds (82 per cent in 2021). Academics fired by political dogma foster like-minded activists under the guise of education. 

Lecturers whose intellectual ambitions have never risen beyond the pages of “best practice” handbooks clone closed-minded functionaries for middle management. Wealthy dullards from credulous abroad pay eye-watering sums to carry off a “vanity Masters” to embellish gaps on their walls and CVs. 

And a self-satisfied chorus of overpaid administrators clap like seals, drowning out the protests of dispirited academics and an increasingly bemused public. Whatever this is, it is not what universities were, and it begs the question: should the people paying for it continue to do so?

Students are not the problem. For all the talk of trigger warnings, safe spaces, therapy puppies and micro-passive-aggressive behaviour, the young are as curious, clever and determined as ever. The problem is that higher education institutions, by endorsing so many facile and patronising measures, harm their charges’ prospects.

Take grade inflation, which is both undeniable and indefensible. This is not evidence for the steady improvement of universities. It is instead betrayal of the young by the old. Teaching and examining students to reveal the most capable and give society reliable guidance about their relative competence was the duty of academics. It is a trust they have falsified.

Lockdown enabled administrators — habitually cynical ideologues — to complete the ruin of universities. When in-person examinations were paused, replaced by open-book assessment and increased coursework, results unsurprisingly improved. 

But in 2023, long after Covid threatened campus life, many universities have normalised these “emergency” measures. Everybody wins: students achieve better grades, courses seem to deliver better results, student satisfaction hits record levels, future employment prospects temporarily improve, and institutions climb the league tables. So who will call time on this mutually self-serving dance around the bonfire of standards?

Academia is now the perfect place for the intellectually lazy

Not managers, who profit in every sense: not least through their own bloated wages. Covidisation cheapens everything, not least the cost of digitally producing the remote university “experience”. Academics on the Left are quick to lament the “Neoliberal Tory” framework that got us in this sorry mess. Yet these committed careerists (who make up the vast bulk of university staff), far from resigning, do everything to keep their system alive. They demand higher wages, for themselves, petition for the higher student numbers which supposedly justify that, and alienate the public who still ultimately pay for the project.

Academia is now the perfect place for the intellectually lazy, the arrogant and the cowardly to pass their years as armchair activists. After all, there’s no danger of blame landing at your feet: your theories may be ridiculous, your research pointless, your teaching useless; but who’s going to fire you when you support all the right causes? Or keep your head down and don’t provoke those who make great play of being properly opinionated.

No one can claim that 13 years of Tory education secretaries has helped the cause. The Department of Education’s current priorities are clear from the present universities minister’s title: the Minister of State for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education. 

As for the universities regulator, tellingly named the Office for Students, its concern with social mobility and opening up opportunities is laudable in principle. But it explicitly obsesses over mercantile statistics about future employment rates, salaries and student satisfaction. Which may well be the consequence of university life but they are not its point. That remains intellectual ambition and academic rigour. Or ought to, especially under a Tory government.

This is one of the great rackets of modern academia

Worse interference comes from that periodical farce, “the REF”. Every British university is compelled to dance to the rhythm of the absurdly titled “Research Excellence Framework”. The “exercise” returns every six or seven years, costing the average institution tens of thousands of hours, and millions of pounds. Yet, on each iteration of the REF, the significance of “research” is steadily scaled back (now at 60 per cent), while the amorphous and intangible criteria of “impact” (now 25 per cent) and “research culture” (now 15 per cent) grow in the absence of academic explanation, to the evident benefit of those who invigilate the teachings of the REF.

This disastrous contrivance of central government isn’t just a tiresome hoop for academics to leap through; it is strangling academia. Those with serious ambitions for long-term, painstaking and inherently uncertain research projects, of discipline-changing books or decade-long experimentation, are instead strong-armed into producing short-term publications that are “REFable”. 

With what goal? So that research packaged solely for the REF can score sufficiently well that the department and its academics can be left in peace to get on with their research — so long as that’s something eligible for the next REF on the horizon. 

All the while, academics striving to teach the disciplines they love must wade through the energy-sapping quagmire of Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) measures. 

This is one of the great rackets of modern academia: dogma-driven, evidence-barren, American-crafted schemes are being pulled off the shelf and imposed on bemused British academics by administrators who don’t understand them but need to be seen to fill their days. 

In the past, such schemes would have been torn to shreds by academics who saw the political ideology and ahistoric nonsense swirling beneath their seductive jargon. Now just raising a query will scotch your promotion prospects or even put your post on the line. Dissent is punished: it’s one of the very few things done efficiently now.

Circumspect academics should be at the vanguard of criticising cant-riddled EDI policies. But instead of exposing their weasel words, vacuous sentiment, and argument by assertion, universities have become the most zealous forces promoting and legitimising them in wider society. 

For some academics this is just the start of the revolution: their once-hidden agenda now proudly flaunts its monomaniacal virtue. Faculty committees explicitly promote ideological initiatives ahead of intellectual integrity and academic freedom. 

Britain has too many universities

As British universities lose status and prestige internationally, their vice-chancellors have more important targets. Many universities now ask applicants for academic posts to provide a “diversity statement” — an assertion of personal commitment, within and without one’s research, to “social justice” issues of the day. Never mind scholarly merit. Like approves like, clique hires clique, and a curiously undiverse department helps standards slide.

Then there’s the canard of “decolonisation” — a term that makes partial sense in a handful of subdisciplines but is meaningless in most. Curricula are rewritten, bibliographies reconstructed, and canonical texts junked.

Assisting this rapid decline is Advance HE, a charity ultimately funded by the taxpayer which touts its Athena Swan and Race Equality Charters and offers Olympic-style awards to institutions that meet its nakedly political “benchmarks”. 

These baubles are appealing: it’s much easier to introduce authoritarian and discriminatory practices on campus, to meet this or that quota of this or that identity, than it is to raise the intellectual ambition and achievement of an entire university. Academics must either submit to the unchecked tyranny of these external credentialisation schemes or find that they no longer “align with the values” of their employer.

The elephant in the room is that Britain has too many universities. Since none will choose to reclassify itself under a less prestigious title, all must jostle undistinguished in the belief that they serve a shared purpose. Onwards we muddle with the heart-warming fancy that 50 per cent of the populace should spend their precious time and money in university education. 

British higher education is not past the point of repair, as is the case for many American colleges. But if universities wish to regain the respect of the public, and of academia outside the Anglophone world, they must reappraise their fundamental purpose.

The beating heart of any healthy university environment must be freedom of enquiry. But the current government has failed to conserve such an atmosphere. Such academics as have meaningfully conservative views habitually self-censor their politics. Meanwhile the jaded public notices ever more astringently how brave academics who hold heterodox views actually have to leave higher education to find their full voice. The bad are driving out the good.

We all know the high-profile stories of houndings and firings. But untold are the countless cases of younger scholars who decide not to pursue an academic career because their research interests, or even their private politics, are likely to bring conflict and disappointment. 

These younger academics look in despair at their seniors: but most big beasts — those whose position is the most stable and academic reputation the weightiest — choose to say nothing and cruise peacefully into idle retirement. The few who rediscover their courage in retirement are then, of course, unable to do anything that actually could help. 

This government has not long left to give academics what the public expects: a guarantee that universities will not close down debate or discipline individuals on spurious notions of inclusivity or safety or social justice.

Listen close on campus and you’ll hear academics chortle about those benighted days of “enlightenment” — when our universities were devoted to the pursuit of truth, and to educating people who sought intellectual and moral integrity. 

Well, let them scoff. That university mission wasn’t for everyone, but that was its point. That was the price a grateful public judged worth paying. Unless our universities repair hard and fast, the average Briton — and many an impecunious student, getting an ever-rawer deal — has good reason to ask for their money back.


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