Britain’s universities are in an appalling state and by no means all of it is the fault of Covid or Ofqual. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 13 universities face “a very real prospect” of insolvency as a result of the coronavirus crisis, unless they receive a government (i.e. taxpayer) bailout. The least prestigious universities are at greatest risk. But when will somebody, confronted with these naked emperors, dare to ask the obvious question: why should we bail them out?
It is understandable that universities, in the face of the pandemic and closure of studies, have been financially damaged by a slump in international student enrolments, loss of income from other campus activities such as conferences, losses on their investment portfolios and the continuing need to meet pension obligations. The reality, though, is that this crisis has simply halted them in a career that was already self-destructive and also harmful to society.
The first problem is one of scale. Does a country the size of Britain really need 130 universities, plus 35 similar establishments classed as “institutions of Higher Education”? Does it make sense that our universities, supposedly establishments catering for the most gifted, currently house 2.3 million students? This is a consequence of decades of politicising higher education, treating it as just another vote-winning amenity on the road to embourgeoisement, like owning a car or graduating to a foreign holiday.
Far too many people are going to university – the target of 50 per cent of youngsters set by Tony Blair was passed last year – rendering the experience meaningless. In 1994 a total of 271,000 applicants were admitted to UK universities; by 2019 the figure had doubled to 541,000. No wonder we have a drop-out rate of 6.3 per cent, representing a scandalous waste of time and resources. The drop-out rate at some institutions suggests utter incompetence in selecting undergraduates. At the University of Bedfordshire the drop-out rate is 15.2 per cent; at the University of Bolton it is 15.4 per cent; and at London Metropolitan University 18.6 per cent – almost one in five students. If the question arose of bailing out any of those institutions, how could such indulgence be justified?
The curricula, too, in many cases, are a travesty. The high culture of the mediaeval studium generale has been debased to the point where university courses now embrace subjects such as media studies, counselling, fashion, hospitality leisure and tourism, youth work, floristry and, of course, “gender studies”. This lowering of the culture of academe has been necessitated by the admission of students lacking the capability to address a serious academic subject.
The objectives of universities today are to generate as much money as possible out of their sausage factories and to flatter the public with the delusion that society is becoming more intelligent, as a consequence of “progress”. To sustain this imposture, since it has, predictably, proved impossible to elevate the performance of unfit students, it has been necessary to lower the bar by a progressive (in every sense) inflation of grades. Over the same period that saw student intake double, from 1994 to 2019, the proportion of Firsts awarded to a demonstrably less intelligent undergraduate population has more than quadrupled, from 7 per cent to 29 per cent.
Considering the prestige that once attached to a First Class degree, even the initial level of 7 per cent represented undesirable grade inflation. Today, the proportion of students awarded a First or 2:1 has reached 79 per cent. Employers will rightly conclude a UK university degree is not worth the paper it is printed on, unless those employers are the BBC, the public sector or, most appropriately, one of our Potemkin universities. Academics who have protested against this degrading charade have been crushed by the self-interested university hierarchy.
This tragedy has been played out against the background of a Greek chorus of pompous dons droning on about our “world-class universities”. Yet again, la trahison des clercs has further contributed to the discrediting of another cohort of “experts” drawn from the elites. Of course there is still first-class research coming out of Oxford, Cambridge and other universities, in certain subjects and at certain levels: considering the resources commanded by them, both human and fiscal, it would be extraordinary if it produced no significant outcomes.
Those reassuring successes, however, like the crowded shop windows in 1960s East Berlin, are a mere facade concealing wider failure. Yet, although the whole climate of contemporary academe is on the cerebrally challenged side of the Left, that should not absolve the Right of its share of responsibility for the decline of universities. Even if one hugely admires Margaret Thatcher, it is not necessary to endorse her attitude to universities. Yes, there was some bumbling inefficiency among dons administering university affairs, but the solution was not to turn institutions of higher learning into business corporations.
Today, having originally embraced that corporate culture, to the detriment of scholarly ideals, universities have followed the same trajectory – or, more accurately, pioneered it – as their business counterparts: they have become “woke” corporations. In past centuries there was one forum in Europe, regardless of conditions elsewhere, in which free speech, civil exchange of ideas and lively debate ensured intellectual freedom and that was the university community. Today, in the whole of our society, there is no place where freedom of speech and thought are more violently repressed than in our universities.
Years ago, an American commentator described North American campuses as “small, ivy-covered North Koreas”. The same now applies to Britain. It is not just a case of scuffles in quadrangles: the totalitarian “woke” culture has devastated the academic curriculum. To take just one example, in 2018 Oxford University’s philosophy department, in order to attract more women students, instructed its “diversity and equality officer” to compose a new reading list comprising 40 per cent female authors. Since the classical canon of philosophy was overwhelmingly male, serious philosophers had to be displaced to make way for unknown women.
How patronising it is for universities to assume women would rather read Angela Davis than Duns Scotus. How long can intellectual achievement survive in such a climate of enforced stultification? Violent “de-platforming” of speakers disapproved of by the campus nomenklatura, both staff and undergraduate, is training a new generation that will soon occupy influential positions in society that it is not only acceptable but morally imperative to silence the views of anyone with whom they disagree.
Campuses are now police states. Policy Exchange published a paper last year on “Academic Freedom in the UK” – the mere necessity for such a study is a grave reproach to our society – which revealed a climate of intimidation on campuses. Only 39 per cent of pro-Brexit students said they would be comfortable expressing that view in class. Strangely, the authors took comfort from the fact that “a significant proportion of students are consistently supportive of academic freedom”, estimated at 30 per cent to 50 per cent. Yet that means half or more reject academic freedom.
The report recommended that universities should adopt an academic freedom commitment such as the Chicago Principles and appoint an Academic Freedom Champion reporting to the vice-chancellor. The government should establish a statutory duty of non-discrimination for political and moral beliefs and extend statutory protection of free speech to student bodies.
The Adam Smith Institute has published research into left-liberal over-representation in British academia, showing that less than 12 per cent of academics support conservative parties, compared with at least 50 per cent of the public; in 1964, 35 per cent of academics voted Conservative. That illustrates the long march through the institutions by the Left.
There will never be a better opportunity than the post-Covid disarray among universities for a cull of our sink institutions. It is necessary on fiscal and academic grounds. We need a leaner, fitter academe, rather than the teeming spires of overcrowded campuses teaching junk subjects. We also need strong statutory intervention to force university authorities to protect freedom of speech, with punitive fines and, eventually, dismissal from post for persistently failing to do so. Attempted “de-platforming” should automatically incur being sent down from university.
While it is not practical or desirable to appoint academics along political lines, a code of conduct should impose a duty to refrain from political activity on campus and to teach and mark subjects objectively. But the worst problem of all, the most atrocious example of groupthink, is the public delusion that our “world-leading” universities are havens of academic distinction. The public must let the scales fall from its eyes and recognise that, of all the flawed institutions in our society, the universities are in the worst state of health.