Walk of shame: a group on an ‘Uncomfortable Oxford’ tour outside All Souls College (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP)

What are universities for?

The battle for British universities is not yet lost

This article is part of a Universities in Crisis feature from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It is harder and harder to escape the feeling that the founding ideals of the university — the preservation, pursuit, and promulgation of learning; the free play of the creative intellect; the incubation of a public-spirited elite — are slowly vanishing in a morass of managerialism, careerism, and ideological capture. Pessimists find comparisons between tertiary education and highly efficient immigration agencies or assembly lines for a cosmopolitan class as hostile to the country’s past as it is indifferent to its future.

There isn’t a consensus about the proper purpose of universities, not least because the benefits they bring to those who pass through them are as many and various as those they contribute to our common life. Yet the two foundational vocations of the sector — the formation of a reflective, informed, and capable citizenry, and the incubation and diffusion of higher learning — have been and should remain the primary justifications for their influence on public life.

There is incontrovertible evidence of widespread discrimination against the country’s brightest and best

Are they discharging these functions? In crude economic terms, the value of a university degree is the signal it sends to wider society about the degree-holder. The signalling function is twofold: admission to a degree course is a test of cognitive ability while completing it is a mark of conscientiousness. Both of these signals have grown ever dimmer.

As an indicator of aptitude, the degree has been eroded: first, by the massive expansion in the numbers of degree-holders, which means that their average intelligence has decreased, and second, by introducing admissions criteria that have nothing to do with raw cognitive ability.

At the same time, the conscientiousness signal is being scrambled by rampant degree inflation. The proportion of Firsts awarded has more than doubled since 2011. Transformatively, a quarter of graduates who got into university with three D grades at A-Level graduated with First Class honours in 2022. Moreover, the assessment metric of the class division is now so blunt as to be heuristically useless. Unsurprisingly, the confidence employers now place in the value of most degrees has never been lower.

For a worryingly high proportion of graduates, evidence of the fabled “graduate premium”, the chief justification for New Labour’s expansion of the number of graduates from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of school-leavers, is scarce. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a quarter of male graduates in England earn less over the course of their careers than those who avoided university altogether.

The expansion of universities has had a negligible positive impact on social mobility, economic productivity and professional skills, and has sharply exacerbated social and cultural divides. Since almost all universities are residential, the growth in graduate numbers has accelerated a massive demographic churn from poorer to wealthier parts of the country, with many university leavers gravitating eventually to London and the South-East.

The gap between domestic annual fees (frozen for years at £9,250, though still the highest in the developed world) and eye-wateringly high international fees is wider than ever, leading to stark and scandalous disparities in admissions thresholds. There is now incontrovertible evidence of widespread and probably unlawful discrimination against the country’s brightest and best young people in favour of low-quality applicants from overseas hungry for post-study visas.

Graduates leave university with average debts of £50,000 to look for jobs in tight labour markets on the lowest salaries in Northern Europe, all at a time when mass migration has driven up rental costs and housing prices to their highest levels in modern history.

Moreover, it is far from obvious that the economic risks of many degrees are outweighed by the broad and enriching formation that university life once offered. On the rare occasions that it is expressed, intelligent and well-intentioned dissent from the sacred values of alphabetism, eco-millenarianism, and white-saviourism, is routinely demonised or ignored. Affirmative action in academic hiring — sometimes covert, often celebrated — is beginning to run rampant. Conspiracy theories about systemic hostility to historically marginal groups abound.

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Six decades after the British Empire’s dissolution, a cottage industry has emerged hawking unhinged initiatives to “decolonise” academic life. The justification for these initiatives is tendentious at best. But their underlying ideology is troubling in other ways. As one academic at the LSE helpfully reminded us on 8 October 2023, “decolonisation is not a metaphor. From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Decolonisation, we were invited to infer, is an ideology that had found its concrete expression in the atrocities committed by Hamas against their collectively guilty colonial oppressors. What happens in the lecture hall does not stay in the lecture hall.

New posts are routinely advertised requiring competence in areas that are so plainly politicised that only the most ideologically aligned have any hope of success. Conversely, scholars with heterodox perspectives who focus on (say) the economic trade-offs of decarbonising the global economy stand little chance of a respectful hearing.

Grant applications and conference invitations promise to liberate “minoritised” figures from the oppression of a scholarly indifference. Academic publishing itself remains a cartelised industry dominated by a powerful oligopoly. I well remember the mix of glee and disbelief of an investment banker on discovering that there were companies who could acquire their primary product for nothing and, once it had met negligible costs of distribution, sell it at exorbitant prices to institutions who had borne all the costs of producing it in the first place.

Meanwhile, the dogmas of EDI/DEI distort decision-making at every level of the modern university in myriad and often unpredictable ways. It is probably true that the endless hectoring of lanyarded commissars and rainbow supremacists is easier to mock and ignore than it is in other sectors. But the fact remains that Britain’s 175 universities employ around 725 full-time staff to help universities to “do the work” enjoined by the most recently created victimhood class.

Few of these roles existed 25 years ago and there is no evidence that, say, the 40 full-time EDI staff at the University of Oxford — hired at an annual cost of £2.04 million — have made it a more congenial place to work for anyone. In short, EDI shakedowns produce perverse incentives and waste millions of pounds better spent on bursaries for undergraduates from low-income families or stipends for graduate students.

There remain some positives: more than a quarter of the world’s countries are led by graduates of a British university

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once observed that the older scholastic conception of the university was animated by a highly integrated theological conception of reality. It was the loss of that organising horizon that made inevitable the emergence of what Clark Kerr once dubbed the “multiversity”. The weakness of the liberal conception of the university is that it treated its enabling norms as self-evident to all, when it turned out they were obvious only to an intellectual class shaped by the cultural memory of its medieval origins.

The cosmic vision of the woke supplies the unifying purpose to universities that liberalism still struggles to replicate: a theory of sin and redemption, an origins story, sacred texts, saints and heretics, a complete moral universe. The key difference between the two outlooks is that the new vision is nakedly political, energised by the Marxist idea that the mission of the intellectual is not to interpret the world but to change it.

Hence the proliferation of contentious “critical” perspectives across the humanities and, increasingly, STEM disciplines too as progressive acadmics launder voodoo disciplines — Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory, Postcolonial Theory — through the reputations of historic institutions to train a new ideological clerisy.

Can anything be done? There remain some positives and even cautious grounds for hope. Britain still boasts, relative to its size, the finest research university sector in the world. The QS University Rankings 2024 puts four of its universities in the global top ten (Cambridge at second, Oxford at third, Imperial at sixth, and UCL at ninth) and seven in the top 40 (Edinburgh at 22nd, Manchester at 32nd, and KCL at 40th). By contrast, only one university in the European Union ranks in the top 25.

More than a quarter of the world’s countries are led by graduates of a British university (27 per cent — only the US has a higher proportion: 28 per cent). And despite the gloomy predictions of many, Brexit has done little to dent the sector’s international standing: it has rejoined the Horizon Europe research programme and ditched the Erasmus+ Scheme, which was restricted almost entirely to EU universities, in favour of the £100m-a-year Turing Scheme, opening up student exchange programmes with more than 160 countries.

Moreover, the sector has achieved these results on relatively modest levels of public subsidy. Indeed, one paradoxical advantage of the UK sector is the financial weakness of its key players relative to its US counterparts. Harvard, by contrast, is a $53 billion hedge fund with a university attached, recently receiving $300 million from the trader Ken Griffin, a donation larger than the endowments of all but four UK universities.

That means university leaders here are more responsive to the disaffection of donors, politicians, and the general public. It also means that they have a lower appetite for the legal risks of politicising the culture of their institutions.

And those risks are growing: the arbitration regime created by the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Act 2023, which will be fully up-and-running in August, as well as recent court decisions expanding the scope of philosophical beliefs protected under the Equality Act 2010, will go some way to constraining the ideological excesses of administrators and academics. These are hopeful signs that the law will provide antidotes that will thaw the well-documented “chilling effect” of campus conformity and cancel culture on intellectual freedom.

New “vice-signalling” universities are necessary to offer a market alternative

For all but a minority of academics, though, lawfare will be too expensive, time-consuming, emotionally draining, and reputationally risky a process to contemplate. What is needed is the formation of networks of academics to teach and publish on heterodox themes in sufficiently large numbers to arrest the “spiral of silence”.

Those who enjoy the luxury of secure positions should prioritise research that challenges ideological subversion of their fields. The adage invoked at his trial by Thomas More is relevant here: he who has remained silent is deemed to have consented. Academic freedom is a precious professional privilege, but it must be exercised to be justified.

Researchers and teachers with heterodox views should publish and promote their views. They owe that to their institutions to prevent its corruption, to junior scholars who do not enjoy the security of a permanent position, to their guild to prevent its politicisation, and, most of all, to the general public, which has a right to expect all sides of an ethically complex or politically contested issue to be fairly articulated.+

Extramural solutions should also be explored. Disgruntled donors should stop funding institutions run by cabals bent on destroying them and redirect their benefactions to scholars and enterprises with the competence and courage to explore heterodox research.

Philanthropists should be persuaded of the benefits of “offshoring” in academia and allocate their bequests to build up research infrastructure along the lines of the Oxford Union or the Hoover Institute, entities that are embedded in the culture of their respective universities but legally  insulated against external interference.

Strategies aimed at effecting reformation of universities from within — the “Tridentine Option”, if you will — may stem the sector-wide sclerosis, but they will not reverse it. What is also needed is a “Geneva Option”: much as the Dissenting Colleges and the University of London emerged as pressure valves from the stifling orthodoxies of Oxbridge in the nineteenth century, new “vice-signalling” universities are necessary to offer a market alternative to the virtue-signalling culture of existing institutions.

The leaders of these new enterprises should avoid the temptation of engaging in a dialogue of the deaf between “woke” and “anti-woke” and focus on recovering the fading liberal norms of tolerating dissent, testing received wisdom, and recognising the value of political neutrality.

To achieve that, they may even find willing and effective recruiting sergeants in a new generation of extramural actors who offer a taste of the fruits of deep learning to millions through the medium of long-form podcasts, online learning platforms, YouTube channels and Substack subscriptions. Many academics are leveraging social media to broadcast anonymously their heterodox perspectives on scholarly questions from within the walls of the ivory asylum.

All but the most naïve will be sceptical that these solutions could provide a panacea to the progressive takeover of Britain’s universities. But the battle is not yet lost and those who cherish the inheritance they bequeathed to the world over centuries must fight on every possible front to ensure it is won.

Only then can we hope to arrest and reverse the closing and coddling of the Western mind.

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