October 4, 2021 - 7:00am

You would be forgiven for thinking that universities are secular institutions. But it turns out that the University of St Andrews is reverting to something akin to 16th Century Calvinism: except that this time it is preaching the doctrine of ‘personal guilt’ rather than ‘original sin.’

The university has introduced new induction modules for students (or should I say converts?) for students on sustainability, diversity and consent, and will not allow students to matriculate if they do not pass. How do students pass? By agreeing with certain statements, such as “acknowledging your personal guilt is a useful start point in overcoming unconscious bias.”

Surely St Andrews — and indeed, all universities — should be focusing on providing quality teaching and learning for their students, rather than forcing undergraduates through a tick-box exercise that adds nothing to the pursuit of academic debate and inquiry? After all, does an 18-year-old who wants to undertake a BSc in Molecular Biology really need to ‘prove’ their purity and acquiescence in order to be allowed to study at a particular institution?

It’s easy to see the test as a form of indoctrination: few students will dare to sacrifice themselves as free speech martyrs, or risk alienating themselves from their peers by admitting that they are non-believers. But then they won’t have to, because the reality is the test achieves nothing. Rather than genuinely exploring and analysing the notion of privilege, undergraduates will simply learn what statements they need to agree with in order to pass, and therefore any ‘atonement’ will be purely performative. 

There is also a deep irony that the test is supposed to help teach ‘good academic practice.’ Good academic practice should be about fostering intellectual curiosity, weighing up evidence, considering alternative opinions, and trying to come to original, convincing conclusions — it should not be about blindly following dogma. 

For example, one of the questions asked on the test is: “Does equality mean treating everyone the same?” If this was an essay title, it would be an interesting one: there are various contexts, nuances and variables to consider, and it could lead to a very insightful discussion on the relative advantages and disadvantages between treating everyone equally (the same) and equitably (according to their needs). However, the reductive, binary nature of the test leaves no such scope or opportunity; the ‘correct’ answer is simply ‘no’. 

I am also convinced that this constant self-flagellation does nothing to help students’ mental health. Students are already anxious enough about everything from body image to climate change to imposter syndrome, and the last thing they need is to be told that they are privileged because they wear vintage clothes or use swear words. Any university policymaker with an ounce of empathy for what young people have been through for the last 18 months should be making sure that freshers week is about fun and newfound freedom, not controlling conformity and contrition on campuses.

I readily accept that we all have more to learn about inherent biases and preconceptions, and many of these topics are worthy of discussion. But students don’t need a gold star for saying racism is bad (as they get in the University of Kent’s white privilege quiz), and the sooner universities go back to being academic institutions rather than ideological ones the better.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.