The campus grievance industry
An illiberal network of activists and quangos threatens our cherished academic freedom
British universities have long existed to defend the liberal principles of free speech and open enquiry. These values have helped challenge dogma, champion freedom and defend those gains once made. However, over the last decade, British universities have become more illiberal. From seeking to de-platform speakers, the discipling of academics that have the wrong opinions or even endorsing movements that seek to dictate what is taught in the name of “decolonisation”, a chill has settled on open academic inquiry. This is leading to a culture of anxious conformism, an increase of top-down cultural control and the bureaucratisation of human interaction. Why?
An informal alliance of equality quangos, charities and university bureaucrats, coupled with campus activists, has a vested interest in amplifying grievances to effect social and political change. I call this the “grievance industrial complex” (GIC). With the issues raised as a result of the horrifying killing of George Floyd, the noble desire to challenge racism has been weaponised by the GIC. The government should legislate to dismantle the GIC, champion enlightenment values in an increasingly hot “culture war” and protect academic freedom and free speech at our centres of learning.
Before the killing of George Floyd, UK universities were already being castigated as hotbeds of racism. In October 2019, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released a series of reports that purported to show deep and systemic racism within the UK’s higher-education sector. These reports were picked up by media outlets around the world. The Guardian argued that “the equivalent of 60,000 students nationwide” had reported or experienced racial harassment on UK campuses.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, the chief executive of the EHRC, argued that her organisation’s reports showed that universities were “not only out of touch with the extent that [racism] is occurring on their campuses, some are also completely oblivious to the issue”. Then universities minister Chris Skidmore called on all senior administrators to prioritise “a zero tolerance culture”. It was “simply not good enough” that some senior leaders were not tackling the issue.
This has now gone into overdrive. For many years “critical race theory” was at best a marginal perspective in social science and the humanities. It now enjoys wide purchase. The UK’s leading critical race theorist, Birmingham City University’s Professor Kehinde Andrews, claims that critical race theory “identifies the responsibility of white people” in perpetuating whiteness that he defines as a “psychosis that cannot be tamed through reason” as it is a “distorted view of reality that is in part reinforced by producing self-affirming hallucinations”. Whilst pessimistic, Professor Andrews has a plan of action: until “the conditions that create Whiteness are destroyed, the psychosis will govern the thoughts and actions of Western society”.
Up and down the country, senior university administrators and academics (as well as many schools) have taken up the ideas of CRT. Times Higher Education carried an open letter addressed to education secretary Gavin Williamson by UK academics calling for university administrators to use their institutional power to further transform the higher educational system. They argue that future university leaders need to take a range of courses to learn about racism and call for the withdrawal of taxpayers’ money should any university be judged to be failing in structural transformation. New training programmes “must include as central components topics on institutional racism, white privilege and power and racial microaggressions”.
Students were asked how well they thought their university was tackling the issue of racial harrassment and the results were overwhelmingly positive
Universities are now busy “decolonising” their curriculums lest any teaching or readings are found that may increase the psychosis that governs “the thoughts and actions of Western society”. One of the UK’s leading universities, King’s College London, is helping lead the way: its principal, Ed Byrne, has committed to “decolonise the curriculum and liberate education at King’s”. Baroness Amos, Director of SOAS and a vocal advocate for the movement, captured the sentiment well. The movement is interested in “who is on the reading lists, how much are you enabling a critique of different approaches to subjects, who is being recognised as being someone who can make a valuable contribution to this? That applies as much to science subjects as it does to arts and humanities subjects.”
Alongside checking who is “on the reading list”, universities are also deepening their commitment to rooting out microaggressions amongst staff and students. Usefully for microaggression hunters, the EHRC provides a set of examples that are indicative. These include a lecturer’s body language, non-white students allegedly being given less work than their white peers, students taking the stairs instead of a lift that contains BAME students, and the pernicious effect of the UK’s departure from the European Union, discussions of which have introduced a “cold wind” on campus.
At the forefront of combating microaggressive stair users is Sheffield’s vice-chancellor, Koen Lamberts. Professor Lamberts has employed student monitors to report the behaviour of other staff and students to what are termed “racial equality champions”. Rooting out microaggressions is designed to help “change the way people think about racism” and if an alleged perpetrator suggests that the accuser is “searching for things to be offended about” this is considered further evidence of racism and coded as a microaggression by Lambert’s champions.
Meanwhile, Advance HE, a leading charitable data provider for UK Higher Education, is promoting its Race Equality Charter (REC) to address alleged structural racism. This charter “provides a framework through which institutions work to identify and self-reflect on institutional and cultural barriers standing in the way of minority ethnic staff and students”. The foundational principle of the REC is that “racial inequalities are a significant issue within higher education”. By meeting the charter’s targets, UK universities gradually earn incremental bronze, silver or gold stars and many UK institutions have signed up in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.
The above paints a very worrying picture of racism. But it also presents a puzzle. Given the progressive nature of UK universities and their historic role in championing social mobility and equal opportunity, how did they become such hotbeds of racism? It is worth examining what the data actually shows.
British universities employ 670,000 staff and teach 2.3 million students annually. The ERHC’s report showed that in a three-and-a-half-year period, where more than nine million students passed through the UK’s higher-education institutions, 0.006 per cent of students reported incidents of racial harassment to their universities. Of staff, just 0.05 per cent made complaints.
The ERHC also asked students how well they thought their university was tackling the issue of racial harassment. The results were overwhelmingly positive. While 2 per cent of ethnic minority students felt that racial harassment was a big problem and 8 per cent somewhat of a problem, 6 per cent did not know, 14 per cent were neutral and 70 per cent ranged from a response of not particularly a problem to no problem at all.
When ethnic minority students were asked how worried they were about being personally subjected to racial harassment at their place of study, 87 per cent responded from neutrality through to not at all worried, with the latter the largest group at 43 per cent of the total. The vast majority of ethnic minority students reported no problems and where they had reported racial harassment were happy with the outcomes.
In a total of almost four years, universities across the whole of the UK had dealt with on average one complaint of racial harassment a year, with only 3 per cent of those students who did report racial harassment feeling unhappy with the ways in which their universities had handled their complaints.
University staff are more than twice as likely to be senior management if they are from a BAME background
British universities have also been castigated for the alleged underrepresentation of BAME staff. Again, the data is totally at odds with the claims. Advance HE’s statistical survey concluded that between “2003/04 and 2017/18, the proportion of all staff who were UK White steadily decreased (from 83.1 per cent to 72.2 per cent), while all other groups increased, most notably those from non-UK White backgrounds (from 8.3 per cent to 14.1 per cent)”.
It continues that during this period, the “proportion of all staff who were UK BAME increased from 4.8 per cent to 7.9 per cent, and the proportion of non-UK BAME staff from 3.8 per cent to 5.9 per cent”.
How about the professoriate? They continue that “there was a small difference between the proportions of White and BAME staff who were professors (11.1 per cent and 9.7 per cent respectively, giving a difference of 1.4 percentage points)”. They go on to show however, that there are clear differences within the category: “16.3 per cent of UK Chinese academics were professors compared with just 4.7 per cent of UK Black academics”.
Controlling for per capita numbers, senior BAME staff are well represented across levels. This remains true at a senior managerial level: 0.8 per cent of all university staff are white senior managers (from a 87 per cent majority white UK population) whilst 0.3 per cent are BAME senior managers (from a UK population of 13 per cent). This means that UK university staff are more than twice as likely to be senior management if they are from a BAME background than if they are white.
What has in fact happened has been the conflation of equal outcomes with equal opportunities whereby unequal outcomes are said to be indicative of an underlying system of discrimination. Similar to the USSR, social “justice” is achieved by a redistributive agent (the state, university administrators, etc) needing to intervene to impose equal outcomes. This conception shifts debates from an examination of underlying processes that allow humans to participate equally to one of top-down imposition to achieve outcome parity, usually by a technocratic elite.
When researching this piece, I was in communication with the data scientists at Advance HE responsible for overseeing its Race Equality Charter. I inquired how they substantiated their key claim that “racial inequalities are a significant issue within higher education”. In response, they stated that it “is not the case that BAME staff are equally represented in senior levels of HE as white staff. We know that 11.1 per cent of UK white academic staff were professors compared to 9.7 per cent of UK BAME academic staff.” It is clear that they are not only deploying a conception of outcome equality but have seemingly not even controlled for population demographics with racial injustice evidenced by the lack of 50/50 representation amongst university staff.
What are the underlying reasons for the weaponisation of charges of racism in our universities and what can be done to help begin to return to fundamental principles of academic freedom, equality of opportunity and open inquiry? There are multiple reasons why the reality and the dominant narrative are so out of sync, most of which emerge from the GIC. What are the components of the GIC?
First, there is an element of ideological groupthink, with British academia overwhelmingly left-wing. Alarmist claims as to the malign nature of British institutions, the West, capitalism and now increasingly “whiteness” are pushing at ideologically open doors with very little to challenge this groupthink. Centre-right academics are as rare as hen’s teeth, especially in the social sciences and humanities.
Regular witchhunts, whispering campaigns, anonymised complaints by activists that lead to disciplinary procedures and so on help to keep dissent in line. Why face the anxiety and likely damaging careers prospects of challenging groupthink when so many university leaders have actively endorsed the worldview of the activists? The mass catastrophisation around Brexit, with 90 per cent of UK academics voting to remain in the EU, coupled with an 80-seat Conservative majority, has merely amplified the activists’ sense of moral purpose and conviction.
Second, there is an element of “woke capitalism” around issues to do with social justice. Just as Amazon and Apple will opine on social justice issues such as the BLM movement, while making billions on the backs of third world sweatshops, UK universities are also engaged in symbolic virtue-signalling. For example, as I write, the BBC reports that universities are in the process of changing their teaching materials to deliver online teaching content to the multi-million pound international student market in China.
Despite the hyperbole, the UK remains one of the least racist societies on earth
There is a slight catch in that these students can only access reading material on a list allowed by the censors of China’s Communist Party. Universities are thus both decolonising the curriculum for the sins of yesterday’s aristocrats while recolonising the curriculum for the sons and daughters of today’s CCP.
Surely a true test of virtue would be to act or speak out when the costs to one’s interests are high. Perhaps university leaders, busily policing microaggressions and whiteness on our campuses, would also like to champion the plight of the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, who are, in their desperate millions, being freighted into “re-education” camps in China. Let us wait and see.
Third, the raison d’être of the UK’s multi-billion pound inequalities industry is to evidence inequality. Despite the hyperbole, the UK remains one of the least racist societies on earth, according to one of the largest European opinion surveys in history. The Office for National Statistics’ latest pay data shows that Chinese, Indian and mixed or multiple ethnicity employees all had higher median hourly pay than white British employees, with employees from the Chinese ethnic group earning 30.9 per cent more than a white British worker. The Higher Education Policy Institute’s latest survey of gender participation rates shows a long-term trend of declining male participation.
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, states that “young women are now 35 per cent more likely to go to university than men. If this differential growth carries on unchecked, then girls born this year will be 75 per cent more likely to go to university than their male peers.” Even at Oxford, an alleged bastion of privilege and a target for “Rhodes Must Fall” activists, more than 22 per cent of its undergraduate students starting in 2019 were Britons from BAME backgrounds, up from 18 per cent on the previous year’s admissions.
In a market of diminishing inequality, it is only natural that organisations like Advance HE must evolve and adapt to new market realities. Conceptual innovations such as the Orwellian concept of microaggressions, where the wrong body language provides a tick in the injustice box, or hyperbolic claims about the ubiquity of discrimination are profitable market adaptations where demand for one’s services must be maintained in the context of diminishing supply. Conveniently, the trustees of Advance HE are made up of senior university leaders who have the power to sign their institutions up for the various (and often very costly) social justice audits. Thus, the GIC rumbles on.
Free speech has been one of the most important motors of progressive reform throughout history. As the late US civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis argued, without “freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings”. The political waves on UK campuses are less of a problem as long as there is a beachhead upon which contestation and open inquiry can take place.
A first step must be that the Conservative Party delivers on its manifesto promise to protect academic freedom and free speech within higher education institutions. The government should not only ensure more political diversity within the Office for Students (OfS) board and senior teams, but commission a review of its performance in protecting freedom of speech.
Second, the government needs an urgent reassessment of its support for institutions that sustain the GIC, such as Advance HE and quangos such as UKRI, responsible for the distribution of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, ostensibly to projects based on research excellence, but now conditioned on membership and participation in the kinds of equality audits examined above.
This is a circular reinforcement game. Promoting equality of opportunity to ensure people are protected from discrimination is in no way in conflict with the respect for individuals’ freedom. It is overly expansive interpretations of demands for outcome equality that foster the impression that they are in conflict with academic freedom.
A white working-class man from a deprived background will quite possibly be told at his first lecture that his whiteness is a psychosis
Third, serious rethinking needs to be done around the structure of incentives for university leadership that has consistently failed millions of young people. A report from the National Education Opportunity Network found that white youngsters in receipt of free school meals were the least likely of any group to study at university after those from Traveller backgrounds. Our most selective universities take only 5 cent of students from disadvantaged backgrounds compared with the national average of 12 per cent.
Even if they do get in, young working class people struggle to stay, with an 8.8 per cent dropout rate, compared with 6.3 per of those from better-off families. Moreover, part-time students from lower-income backgrounds have dropped by a massive 42 per cent over the past six years. ONS figures show the historically low entry rate into higher education of white pupils from state schools has been stubbornly resilient. The biggest increase in entry rates between 2006 and 2018 was among black pupils — up from 21.6 per cent to 41.2 per cent, while the smallest was for white pupils (from 21.8 per cent to 29.5 per cent).
Serious questions need to be asked when our universities, whose social contract dictates that they widen participation to promote equal opportunities, are at the same time actively endorsing ideas around white privilege and more broadly the collective guilt of white people. There is something deeply broken when a young white working-class man from a deprived background will quite possibly be told at his first lecture that his whiteness is a psychosis and he should reflect on the alleged innate privileges of his racial identity.
Shamefully, these theories will probably be pushed by a highly paid, high-status employee, enjoying the recession-proof privileges of a public-sector job with a gold-plated pension and, more often than not, from a background of privilege.
This leads to my final and broader point. The destruction of Jeremy Corbyn at the last election by the collapse of Labour’s “red wall” indicates a deeper realignment of British politics which is part of a deeper shift in the politics of the Western world. In Britain, the Conservative government faces a problem in that it needs to consolidate hegemony if it is to remain in power, having effectively borrowed red-wall votes to deliver on the referendum vote.
To date, its massive programme of state spending is an attempt to put wind under the wings of its levelling-up agenda. If it can help transform the fortunes of areas outside the M25, through targeted investment, it will put a materiality to its political offering among the votes it borrowed to get Brexit done.
However, hegemony also involves the generation of a cultural story. The Conservative Party has been asleep at the culture war wheel for far too long. It’s not too late. It should bundle university reforms into a broader offering seeking to reverse the long-term trend of the collapse of faith in the West itself. A reassertion of the primacy of the Enlightenment tradition of reason, open inquiry and freedom within a progressive patriotism, would be a winning cultural formula.
The Labour Party has a long and proud history, but its slow suicide from a party of and for the working class into endorsing nihilistic identity politics, is anathema to the universal promise of our common humanity. Woke politics is a new form of status-orientated class war more akin to a secular theology than a programme of political transformation. It presents a story of moral certainty, sin, guilt and deconstructive redemption through the erasure of Western civilisation.
Its high priests signal their status and open contempt for the lumpen deplorables, gammons, Brexiteer “racists” and so on who must be made to either see the light or beg for their right to exist. Keir Starmer’s Labour sings from this hymnsheet as it bends the knee.
Looking ahead, the outlook for the post-Covid UK economy does not look good. There are predictions of up to four million people losing their jobs, possible uncontrollable inflation as a result of quantitative easing, and a hardening geopolitical contest between revisionist, highly illiberal powers and a declining West.
These tectonic shifts will realign winners and losers in the new dispensation and quite possibly unleash much darker movements who will also adopt the language of grievance and hatred, but whose balance of power will vastly outmatch our enlightened woke priests, that ultimately rely on the goodwill and the patience (and in many cases the taxes) of the very people they so despise.
Failure to grasp the importance of ideas and their capacity to narrate into being new realities will mean the new Conservative hegemony is stillborn, and a structural moment will be lost. Start with our centres of learning, where a broken system of incentives, garbled leadership and groupthink is generating a self-perpetuating grievance culture that is failing new generations of our most disadvantaged young. Do not let the embers of free speech and open inquiry die; time for a strong wind to blow them aflame so our path forward can be marked by light again.
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