July 11, 2023 - 5:00pm

The politicisation of institutions leads to a loss of public confidence as partisans become aware of what is going on inside them. Universities are a paradigm case.

To wit, a new poll from Gallup shows that Americans’ confidence in their institutions of higher education has plummeted from 57% in 2015 to 36% today. While all voters are frustrated with rising student debt and the spiralling cost of higher education due to administrative bloat, there is a strong ideological dimension at work, too.

Figure 1 shows that confidence declined most sharply among Republicans, tanking by a whopping 37 points to just 19%. Independents registered a 16-point drop and Democrats a small but significant 9-point decline. While those without a degree are more sceptical than those with one, differences by education, age or gender are less pronounced.

Figure 1. Credit: Gallup

These results correlate with those from other sources. The New America Foundation found that the share of Americans saying universities “have a positive effect on the way things are going in this country” declined from 69% in 2020 to 55% in 2022. By a 75-37 margin, Democrats were more likely to view universities’ contributions positively.

The well-documented proliferation of cancel culture incidents on campus has undoubtedly been a contributing factor behind this decline. For example, the number of speech censorship or targeting incidents recorded by the College Fix’s Campus Cancel Culture Database jumped from around 100 to 300 between 2015 and 2020. Meanwhile, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) Scholars Under Fire database found a fourfold leap from under 40 to over 200 targeting incidents between 2015 and 2021. And in the UK, campus cancel culture incidents, as recorded by Academics for Academic Freedom, jumped from six to 24 between 2015 and 2021 — in line with US trends, albeit at a lower level.

Confidence in universities is also connected to trust in academics. In a Qualtrics survey I conducted in 2021, just 34% of 2020 Republican voters trusted social science and humanities (SSH) professors compared to 81% for Democratic voters. The gap for science, mathematics and engineering (STEM) fields was smaller (89-67). The well-documented Left-wing skew in the American professoriate, especially in the social sciences and humanities, is increasingly public knowledge, and is likely contributing to the effect.

This taps into a wider disaffection with public institutions. Gallup finds declines in trust for public schools, the police and large businesses, among others, but once again there is a partisan dimension, with Pew showing that just 37% of Republicans trust public schools, compared to 72% of Democrats.

In Britain, I asked a similar set of questions to those from the US Qualtrics survey and found a much higher, bipartisan level of trust in academics, as shown in Figure 2. At the same time, I uncovered a lower, bipartisan trust in journalists. The largest political divide was with regard to SSH academics, though it was 19 points compared to 47 points in America.

Figure 2

While it may be tempting to blame America’s partisan polarisation for its plummeting institutional trust, it’s worth asking whether similar trends are taking hold in Britain and other countries, and whether they may come to follow the US’s lead.

Why might this be? A large reason is that British universities, schools and other institutions appear to be following the same path of contentious politicisation around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and critical race and gender theory that has contributed to falling trust in American institutions. For instance, 78% of 18 year-olds in 2022 heard at least one critical race or gender concept from an adult in school, with this being taught as the only respectable view in seven of 10 cases. The growth of the DEI sector has also mushroomed, to the point that six in 10 British workers in organisations of 100 or more people have taken diversity training.

If British institutions had any sense, they would learn from the American experience and swiftly change course. I won’t be holding my breath.


Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Future of White Majorities. He is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.

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