Dr Arif Ahmed Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Philosophy at Gonville and Caius College University of Cambridge. Cambridge University freedom of speech row. Story by Ben Ellery

The university lie

Can academia still support meaningful intellectual life?

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

What are universities for? That question should be answered with one word which has a plain meaning: scholarship. This is not a means to an end, it is the end. And what it ought to produce is nothing more than its intellectual fruits. 

These should be gathered in a congenial and collegiate atmosphere conducive to study and — except in specific professional disciples such as medicine and law — the activity is not primarily vocational in character. For students, attending university should be a holistic experience and not a credential-harvesting passing of the termly seasons. Yet, of how many British universities can this still be said to be the case?

University is justified in terms of pitifully crude — and largely unevidenced at lower-tier level — materialism: what it supposedly can do for your prospects economically; and what graduates can then in aggregate do for gross domestic product. Or country, as we might quaintly call it. 

The flip side of this materialist approach is promoted by the progressive left — universities are the tool to remedy injustice, spread diversity, and include the intellectually average. They are engines to decolonise and transgress, to queer and deconstruct. 

And all the while — controlled as they long have been by some of the most average British progressives going — they also mysteriously discriminate, oppress and exclude to hysterical and parodic extents.

 So much exhausts the tormented souls who go now to our universities. From where is there any desire to stand up for irrelevance, disinterest and self-containment as the true basis of scholarship properly understood? 

How could the corporate body of the British university — the lecturers and scholars every bit as much as the armies of administrators and hangers-on who have gained ascendancy over the academic staff — tolerate the idea that they, by definition, should really stand apart from the life of the nation? 

That instead of being a voluminous part of the national fabric, they must be a rare ornament adorning the country. And that if they sink to the quotidian level of mere schools they lose the very distinction that set them apart. Namely, an appetite — and an aptitude — for learning, as opposed to the need for instruction.

Our universities are legion and they think of themselves as being central to public, social, commercial and moral life in modern British society. Who are you and what are you without a degree? This is your rank and your requirement, and it is doled out by paper mills indifferent to quality. Be it yours, with your inflated degree, or theirs, with their indifferent admissions barely tempered even by what it takes to balance their books. 

Yet who’s to say they’re wrong? The degree has come to occupy exactly the place that the people who have done so much to destroy the true idea of the university wanted it to possess. It’s a mark of conformity and orthodoxy. But it is also essential for everyday life in a way that scholarship is incapable of truly being.

The modern university is, in short, a lie

The modern university is, in short, a lie. The self-flagellation, be it over racism, sexism, transphobia, “violence”, mental health, is pretence. And it is a fakery that is necessary simply because there is nothing like the scholarship, still less the scholars, to justify the scale of the contemporary British academic establishment.

In simple words, the rapid expansion of the sector has ensured that too many, particularly in the humanities departments, have little of value to do. So they have to act up, like frustrated, ever- stunted, children. The value which is squandered here is the possibility of meaningful intellectual life. 

But to keep the show going, and endowments topped up, and taxes raised and public monies spent, and futile debts imposed, every single university in this country pretends that it must be the size it is, and larger still. Not one university will admit that it has vastly outgrown any credible intellectual need.

It is not surprising that modern British universities divert themselves with these carnivals of condemnation in which achingly right-on poseurs claim both every crime going — many contrived for the day of the week it is — and the lanyard worn for it. This gives them a more urgent sense of purpose than scholarship ever could.

Are the universities worth saving? No, not in anything like the number that currently exist. There is no case for the quantity and size of institutions masquerading as offering the university life, but in reality providing a parody of it. Contrary to the spirit of grade inflation they have actively promoted, they should be allowed to fail.

What then of the universities that we should want, and the academics and students at them? In this issue we profile the inestimable Arif Ahmed, who is to defend academic freedom in an academic environment that fears it. No better man could be found for the role. 

He had the courage to invite our columnist, Helen Joyce, to his Cambridge college, which its master and senior tutor denounced as “offensive”. Beyond his college, Professor Ahmed has been one of the half-dozen academics always to the fore whenever Cambridge has done a right thing this century. 

The undoing of — the now thankfully former — Cambridge vice chancellor Stephen Toope was as much Professor Ahmed’s work as any other academic at the university.

That Cambridge retains the structures — free and secret ballots in Regent House — where defeats can be inflicted upon a Toope or his successors is a miracle. After all, the Toopes are relentless. For to be defeated once is not enough to stop them from mysteriously subscribing to all the discredited nostrums of critical theory, CRT and a tyranny of HR-invigilated complaints of subjective microaggressions. 

Most Toopes don’t need votes to achieve their ends, they just need administration and personnel. Which they have in inexhaustible numbers.

Professor Ahmed’s new post, as a de facto “Director of Freedom” had many champions, and, at least in the telling of Professor Matthew Goodwin, was the determined work of a counter-vanguard, who played the Left at their own game. And who for once in the dismal 13 years of Tory educational misrule, got their — rather than the blob’s — way.

All well and good, but so many hopes, so often so silent and so fearful, rest on Ahmed’s shoulders. But what can he truly do? Take just one real world example which would have confronted him, had any Tory education secretary stopped posing and created his post years earlier: the “deplatforming”, at minutes’ notice, of the former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, in Oxford three years ago.

This was done by an undergraduate society that a state-appointed regulator is now to have supervision over, with powers to punish. How will that official establish what the crime against freedom was here? 

The martyrs of the “marketplace of ideas” that Sebastian Milbank so sceptically assesses in this issue insist no one has the right to a platform nor a right not to be criticised. So why can’t a private, autonomous body withdraw an invitation as readily as they make it? 

What business is it of a quango or its appointees, however currently agreeable they are, to look into this? But most of all, how would they establish what has unacceptably been done here? And how would they punish whatever that was?

No one should doubt who is trying to police the universities (and intolerantly destroy the careers of those they disagree with). It’s the Left, slyly or militantly as circumstances permit. However, while trying to protect the freedom of scholars is a noble end, it’s far from clear that the Office for Students can do anything of the sort. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover