June 24, 2022

When are we going to do something about the state of our universities? We must surely by now be familiar with the symbols of this unfolding crisis. Philosopher Kathleen Stock, who was harassed by students and staff to such an extent that she was forced to leave her position at the University of Sussex. Noah Carl, the promising research fellow, who was chased out of Cambridge. Tony Sewell, the government advisor who oversaw the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities before suddenly finding his offer of an honorary doctorate at the University of Nottingham withdrawn. Tim Luckhurst, the Principal at Durham who invited Rod Liddle to speak at a dinner and was then suspended after students demanded he be disciplined.

These are only four of the 137 academics or speakers who have, since the mid 2010s  been banned from Britain’s campuses, faced student-led campaigns to silence them, or have simply been sacked. But new research suggests that things are far worse than we thought — and getting worse.

The study by the Higher Education Policy Institute confirms we are facing a deep cultural problem that is becoming more pronounced with each generation. Crucially, unlike studies in the past, the Institute tracked the attitudes of a representative sample of university students over the past six years, between 2016, the tumultuous year of the Brexit referendum, and today. The findings are devastating.

They point to a new generation of university students who are increasingly supportive of removing from campus words, books, ideas, speakers, and events they find uncomfortable or offensive. This generation have been raised to prioritise their “emotional safety” above all else, and are more willing to impose restrictions on others, to curtail views they disagree with.

In their highly influential work in America, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warn that universities and colleges are increasingly characterised by what they call “vindictive protectiveness” — a push to transform these institutions into “safe spaces” where students are shielded from words and ideas that make them uncomfortable, and where anyone who questions or challenges this orthodoxy is either ostracised or punished.

This is, clearly, now happening in Britain. Student support for refusing to sell tabloid newspapers on campus, on the grounds of sexism, has rocketed 24 points, to 62%. Support for banning speakers who offend students has more than doubled, to 39%. Support for firing academics if they “teach material that heavily offends some students” has also more than doubled, to 36% — that’s over a third of undergraduates who would support the removal of lecturers and professors they perceived to be offensive.

Evidence of this “purity spiral”, whereby members of a dominant ideological group become increasingly intolerant of those who hold other beliefs, is reflected in other findings. Support for removing memorials of potentially controversial historical figures has rocketed 25-points, to 76%. Support for establishing “safe space policies” has jumped 14-points, to 62%. Support for banning books that might cause offence — whether in terms of race, sex, religion, or politics — is up across the board. And support for stopping or disrupting events that students are not happy with has also more than doubled. “Some areas have seen less change than others”, write the authors, “but, overall, the pattern is very clear as the changes that have occurred are overwhelmingly in one direction – towards more support for restricting freedom of expression on campus. Moreover, the scale of the changes are often stark.”

I suspect three factors are colliding to weaken our universities, creating a generation of students poorly prepared for the more polarised world off campus, and pushing our world-leading institutions away from their founding mission to search for truth through free enquiry.

The first is generational. Students who are currently finishing their first year at university were born in 2003-2004. They are Generation-Z, the Zoomers, who have simply had fundamentally different coming-of-age experiences than their Millennial or Generation-X parents.

Millennials and Gen-Xers came-of-age in the Eighties and the Nineties, sandwiched between Thatcher and Blair. Politics was turbulent but also more stable. People were generally committed to the two main parties. The agenda was more economic than cultural. And there was still a diverse range of voices in politics, media, creative, and cultural institutions, which helped to ensure that people were exposed to alternative views. The growing education-based polarisation between graduates and non-graduates had not yet intensified. And the far more liberal graduate class had not yet taken over the institutions.

Zoomers, in sharp contrast, have grown up in a completely different world. They were 13 when the Trump and Brexit revolts erupted and they spent their adolescence living amid what political scientists call “affective polarisation” — a far more divisive, volatile, and emotion-led politics in which Remainers and Leavers, liberals and conservatives, have simultaneously became more positive about their own tribe and more openly hostile toward the opposing side.

Aside from being the first generation to witness a strong populist Right (UKIP) and a strong populist Left (Corbyn), they have been raised by parents who have more openly taken sides in this more polarised environment — symbolised by the 36% of Remain-voting parents who would “feel upset” if their child married a Brexiteer, and the 21% of Brexit-voting parents who would feel similarly if their child were to marry a Remainer.

Given this polarisation is underpinned by the growing educational divide between more culturally liberal graduates and more conservative non-graduates, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that the university students who are self-selecting into universities have also become more focused on prioritising the needs of their own tribe and more willing to ostracise others.

Secondly, regarding ideology, Zoomers are also the first generation to have been born, raised and immersed in what sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning call “Victimhood Culture” — the rise of a new moral code in Western societies characterised by an overwhelming concern with deriving social status through claims to victimhood, extreme sensitivity to offence, and a strong dependency on turning to third parties to resolve disputes.

Unlike moral cultures in the past, which stressed dignity and honour, and put an emphasis on toleration and negotiation as a route out of conflict, victimhood culture encourages students to stress their oppression, marginalisation, and victimhood as a means of acquiring status from their peers; while simultaneously turning to third parties (i.e., university administrators) to punish those who are seen to be “oppressing” or merely challenging their safety and beliefs.

This is reflected in the finding this week that 64% of students now think that universities should “consult special interest groups (i.e. religious or gender societies) about on-campus events”, up from only 40% in 2016. And in the finding that 61% of students now think that main job of the university is to ensure that all students are protected from discrimination rather than allow unlimited free speech, up from only 37% in 2016.

The rise of this victimhood culture is also, almost certainly, being encouraged by the broader ideological evolution of Britain’s universities. As my research, and that of others, has shown over the past four years, these are morphing into “ideological monocultures” where the ratio of Left-wing to Right-wing academics has increased from three to one in the Sixties to around eight to one today. Much like institutions in America, it is increasingly hard to find visible conservatives or other nonconformists on campus. Some students will now go through their entire degree never really knowing one at all.

One basic problem with monocultures is they embolden the most radical activists to lash out against others, safe in the knowledge that the moderates won’t challenge them. In turn, significant numbers of academics openly admit to being biased against conservatives, including one in three who would not hire a known Brexit supporter. Most conservative and gender critical scholars say they are self-censoring on campus, as do one-quarter of all university students, while those on the right or who do not subscribe to the new orthodoxy on campus are especially likely to do so, underlining the impact of this new moral culture.

Nor is this lost on students themselves. While prominent academics sit on Twitter arguing that the crisis unfolding in our universities represents a moral panic being whipped up by Right-wing campaigners, the students who are actually sitting in their seminars and lectures are increasingly taking the opposite view — the latest report finds that 38% of students think “universities are becoming less tolerant of a wide range of viewpoints”, up from 24% in 2016.

Third, while this is being reinforced by social media (Zoomers are the first generation to have spent their entire lives online), within the context of the university it is more accurately being driven by organisational changes. Increasingly, over the last two decades, these generational and ideological factors have collided with a new ethos in universities which prioritises “student satisfaction” as the main, if not only, metric that really counts.

Conservatives are as much to blame as the Left. By focusing relentlessly on the marketisation of universities, by talking about students as consumers, we have created a climate in which the demands of students, not academics, increasingly shape our intellectual culture. Almost all the changes that are being imposed on higher education for largely political reasons — the decolonisation of reading lists, the imposition of ideological litmus tests such as “diversity statements” when applying for jobs or grants, decisions regarding who speaks and works on campus and who does not, and the transformation of universities more generally into hyper-political organisations — are now often made in the name of “student satisfaction”. This is further encouraged by the rampant spread of university bureaucracy, in which cowardly administrators — none of whom really understand the point of academe — routinely bend over backwards to ensure that student-led demands to have events removed, academics investigated, and new restrictive policies implemented are fully met and satisfied.

It is perhaps no coincidence that amid these changes, only 25% of British people now think universities are offering “value for money”, and more people would rather their child studied for an apprenticeship than went to university. What a tawdry end for our once world-leading institutions.