Brexit Shows Ugly Side of British Universities

Censorious antics of ‘snowflake’ students have regularly made front-page news here in the UK. No longer. The momentous political fall-out from the June 23rd referendum, when a majority of citizens voted in favor of Britain leaving the European Union, has swept all other concerns aside. Whatever occurs in the coming months, whether ‘Brexit’ actually happens, or, as looks increasingly likely, the democratic will of the people is kicked into the long grass, the response to the referendum from within universities has had a devastating impact on academic freedom.

A Predetermined Position

My first indication that the debate around Brexit might be used to curtail free speech on campus came, ironically, after I gave a lecture on academic freedom. When I had finished speaking, the vice chancellor of the university thanked me but then went on talk about the institution’s perspective on the referendum. It surprised me that, despite making a rhetorical nod to the importance of debate, the most senior person in the university was prepared to advocate so forcefully for one particular political position. A week later, over coffee, a colleague confided that although he wanted to argue the case for Brexit publicly, he was concerned that this might have a negative impact upon his career.

It would be difficult to imagine universities, in the run up to a general election, publicly articulating a preference for one party over another, or urging staff and students to vote a certain way. But this is what happened in the run up to the referendum. Universities UK (UUK), an umbrella group representing the collective interests of the British higher education sector, launched its Universities for Europe campaign in July 2015. Its aim was to demonstrate how ‘the EU strengthens our already world-class higher-education system’ and to ‘promote powerful evidence and highlight compelling stories about the benefits of European Union membership’.

If an undergraduate sought ‘powerful evidence’ to prove an already determined political position they would, rightly, be criticized. An academic would be accused of blurring the lines between research and propaganda. Yet UUK expected scholarship to support a clearly defined agenda rather than simply contribute objective knowledge to a marketplace of ideas. If academic freedom is not formally curtailed, it certainly becomes more difficult to practice when intellectual contributions are not seen as competing claims of truth but as moral position statements.

Academics Fall in Line

When scholars first fought for the right to academic freedom it was precisely so that they could teach and argue for ideas that ran counter to the beliefs of university managers and benefactors. Today, the expectation that academics will fall in line with an institutional perspective on EU membership has passed virtually without comment. It has gone unchallenged because the overwhelming majority of academics share the opinion they were asked to support.

In the weeks prior to the referendum, a poll conducted by a British magazine, the Times Higher Education, suggested that 90 per cent of academics intended to vote to remain in the EU. As the referendum approached, a number of these scholars took to social media to declare ‘I don’t know anyone who is voting leave.’ Such statements were intended to summon up the collective might of academia, the assumption being that if all these clever people are voting remain then that must be the only reasonable course of action. Obviously, with hindsight, these bold declarations only emphasize how cut off some academics are from the general population.

The result of the referendum, a 52 per cent vote in favour of leaving the EU, reveals at a stroke the gulf between the political views of an academic class and the views held by the general population. This chasm, together with academia’s growing ideological homogeneity, is bad for both academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge. When one view dominates over all others then the voices challenging dominant perspectives and asking awkward questions of research data are silenced. Truth does not emerge from consensus, even if all members of the consensus have doctorates, rather it emerges from putting theories to the test and rigorous testing requires a plurality of perspectives.

Homogeneity Suppresses Knowledge

 The shock that many academics expressed upon hearing the referendum result provides a neat illustration of how political homogeneity acts to suppress knowledge. If British universities had acted less like an ideological bubble, then scholars may have been less surprised at the outcome and more aware of the factors influencing the leave vote.

Since the referendum result has been announced, rather than expressing humility at their ignorance of public attitudes, many academics have instead further pulled up the university ramparts. One professor has called the vote to leave a triumph of ‘xenophobia, fear, ignorance and nostalgia.’ Everywhere leave voters were charged with racism, xenophobia and ignorance. Yet this is despite the fact that polling conducted on the day showed the primary motivation for people deciding to vote leave was ‘the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.’ Another highly respected survey, conducted a year before the referendum, showed that ‘the poorest and least educated were less likely than anyone else to think Brexit would reduce immigration.’

The sentiment some academics have expressed against leave voters has been ugly, unfounded and prejudiced. This was not just directed at voters from outside of universities but at the tiny minority of academics brave enough to declare publicly that they voted leave. One lecturer tells me she was yelled at in a corridor, another that colleagues have stopped speaking to him altogether. The danger now is that the 90 percent political consensus is turned into 100 percent ideological homogeneity as academics with opposing views are told that they are not welcome in academia.

How to Overcome the Referendum

Since the referendum, academics have been busy. Some, such as Professor A C Grayling, Master of the New College of the Humanities, have been demonstrating, signing petitions and writing letters ‘urging Parliament not to support a motion to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty’ or, in other words, campaigning to have the referendum result overturned. Others have been re-evaluating degree programs, exploring ways to make the promotion of European citizenship more explicit. But it is no more the role of academics to interfere in the democratic process than it is to instruct students in which values they should adopt.

After the referendum, British academics need to pause for thought. They urgently need to consider the consequences for academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge of the emergence of an institutional perspective on the one hand and a growing political consensus on the other. Not all ideas are equally valid and the university provides an ideal place for testing opinions through debate. However, for debate to be meaningful a variety of views must be heard. Attempts to use higher education to mould a particular type of citizen, one who enacts values predetermined by an academic elite, can only ever lead to the stifling of debate through mindless conformity.

5 thoughts on “Brexit Shows Ugly Side of British Universities”

  1. As an Australian academic who has previously lived in Britain, I noticed a lot of Remain voters were being high-falutin’ about why they supported remaining in the EU. But when pressed, often I saw that there was quite a lot of self-interest behind peoples’ votes. This is fair enough – people are entitled to vote in their own self-interest! – just don’t pretend otherwise, and that you’re superior to others.

    The same point goes for universities. I emailed a few colleagues after the referendum to ask how Brexit impacted them. Answer: “Terrible, we’re going to financially struggle now.” Thus, I hypothesise that one reason universities supported Remain so strongly was because it was in the self-interest of universities to obtain EU funding and grants. Arguments about moral superiority obscure this important point. And they certainly didn’t want their academics risking that funding…hence why it would be a career limiting move for academics to support Leave. Money is more important than academic freedom…

  2. I’m always encouraged to read of any academic’s enlightenment to the Left’s March to the Sea, but it hardly needed Brexit to demonstrate the situation at UK universities, at least according to my (US) perspective.

    Williams writes: “It would be difficult to imagine universities, in the run up to a general election, publicly articulating a preference for one party over another.”

    In fact it is, and always has been quite easy to imagine this, just as Orwell was able to imagine the boot on the face. What has happened is that (and yes, I am about to refer to Hitler), decent people have simply stood in awe and disbelief while watching the legions goose-step down the Unter den Linden, able to muster merely a “Can this really be happening?” in response.

    “It would be difficult to imagine universities, in the run up to a general election, publicly articulating a preference for one party over another.” Yes, well, we in the US have just heard one of our Supreme Court Justices in just such a public articulation. That, too, was not difficult to imagine. Only those who have been willfully blinding themselves could have failed to see this natural and logical extension of the politics the entire West finally recognizes it is in the grip of.

    We are living in an Age of Politics, pure and simple. Traditions and theories of constitutional order no longer break the political waves. Continued attempts by decent people to reason and argue their way (our way) out of this brute fact and back into those traditions and theories are hapless, hopeless and spineless. Continuing to understand the ramifications of the Left’s will to power as merely a “stifling of debate” is the equivalent of the French at the Maginot Line in May 1940; it misses the schwerpunkt, the point.

    Those conservatives and other decent people who remain in UK and US universities had better stop fighting the last war and begin to fight the new one.

  3. Very well said. I left the University I had been working at for seven years to become the regional director of one of the leave campaigns. The atmosphere was stifling, the viewpoints censorious and the assumption of moral superiority arrogant.

    I won’t be returning to institutional academia. I will be continuing my research as an independent.

  4. The question that confronts us is what is The Work of the University in an Age of Post-factual Politics?

    Experts are derided and to be ignored
    Evidence-based warnings are ‘scaremongering’
    Objective facts are ‘doing the country down’
    Universities are ‘brainwashing factories’ (that need to be controlled?)
    etc. etc.

    A strong emotional heart-tugging narrative – especially if based on fantasy – will always trump (pun intended) a cool, rigorous, evidence-based rationale.

    How do we – in academia – construct our own compelling narratives?

  5. Brexit is an interesting example to suggest Ivory Tower academics exist. The 52% statistic is a generational artefact… namely of older and/or retired adults in England (and, to an extent, Wales) being larger than other generations or sub-populations (e.g. Scots).

    If you assumed academics tend to the old, then they are, conceivably, out of touch with their own generation but this is probably a poor assumption.

    More generally, it is very much the role of academics to provide their society with an educated position. Unfortunately for those involved in Brexit, their reasons were and remained emotional. What happened post Leave-vote was not only predictable by academics, it was the obvious outcome that most secondary pupils’ models of economics and politics would have suggested.

    Sometimes there is simply a right answer.

    Here’s an interesting line, “Half an hour ago, I’d have thought Highgate closing would be the best news ever. Not now — now that it was actually happening.” When I read that again the other day, I thought immediately of Brexit. Psychologically, people are not so good at making rational decisions because we don’t value time rationally. There is, I feel, a good argument to make that decisions like Brexit should be made by two referenda. The first, advisory (like the one that just happened). The second? Enforce its decision.

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