IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Errata: An examined life, the literary critic, essayist and philosopher George Steiner, described his first encounter with Martin Heidegger’s monumental, Sein und Zeit. Steiner related how he was unable to grasp even the most straightforward sentence, but nevertheless, resolved to try again. And again. As he says:
“This is the point. To direct a student’s attention towards that which, at first, exceeds his grasp, but whose compelling stature and fascination will draw him after it”.
In this elegant sentence, Steiner beautifully encapsulates what was then – in the 1950s – seen as the fundamental aim of a university education: to nurture a love of truth and the intellectual curiosity and courage to pursue it.
Today, most academics would find this idea touchingly naïve – little more than a nostalgic remnant of a bygone age. And in fairness, it must seem a rather distant world. In the 1950s around 3.4 per cent of Britain’s young people went on to higher education. Today, more than 20 years after Tony Blair’s Labour Party set the target as a policy, that figure is >50 per cent – around 2.4 million students. Along with an expansion of student numbers, there has been a concomitant increase in higher education (HE) institutions. Throughout the 1960s the number of UK universities grew from 22 to 45. Today there are 165 HE institutions, of which some 142 are universities.
Higher education is big business; the total annual income for the sector in 2017-18 was £38.2 billion. There is now a highly competitive global marketplace in education, with universities spending millions on sophisticated marketing and advertising strategies designed to enhance ‘brand awareness’. Academic standards have inevitably plummeted, precisely because they are no longer catering for the intellectually most able. Today we have degree courses in Tourism, Floristry, Surf-Science and Hand Embroidery, to name just a few. The aim is to sell educational ‘products’ in a mass marketplace, for the sole purpose of maximising income.
As universities have evolved from being elite centres of learning, into competitive mass-market businesses, the status of the student has also changed profoundly. With the introduction of tuition fees, students have become fee-paying customers and, as such, are extremely important to the university as service provider. This has altered the dynamic of the power relationship between the student and the university. Student Unions today are consumer protection organisations, wielding significant influence over the university administration, including senior management. And as with any responsive commercial organisation, universities are nervous of customer complaints and eager to respond to customer (student) demands.
Historically, Student Unions have always been politicised, but since the 1970s, a hard-left orthodoxy has emerged on campuses, which finds intellectual inspiration in an amalgam of postmodernism and ‘cultural Marxism’. The details of these movements need not detain us here, but they have in common a hostility towards Western culture and the foundational principles of the Enlightenment, i.e. the sovereignty of reason, tolerance – and the progressive improvement of society. Their perspective is unrelentingly negative – the destruction of what has been – rather than the offer of any coherent vision for the future.
This ideology is embodied in the new ‘woke’ culture which has infiltrated campuses in the UK and US, with its stifling of open debate and its self-righteous, hysterical intolerance. More importantly, ‘social justice warriors’ are using identity politics, with its virtuous victimhood, to attack the social structures they despise.
A recent worrying example of this has been the University of Edinburgh’s decision to remove the name of David Hume, from the Tower of that name, because of his racist comments (see my earlier article here). It followed an investigation by the university’s ‘Race Equality and Anti-Racist Sub-Committee’ and was announced in Students News on the university website. The statement reads:
“The work of the University’s Equality and Diversity Committee and its Race Equality and Anti-Racist Sub-committee has continued over the summer. It has been further energised following the killing in May of George Floyd and the ongoing campaigning by the Black Lives Matter movement”.
Furthermore, the university has been content for individual departments to advertise their ideological commitments, using the university as a platform. For example, its MRC Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine states on its website, that it: “…. wholeheartedly supports the Black Lives Matter movement”:
Black Lives Matter (BLM), as an organisation, has Marxist origins as openly admitted by its founders and has recently applied to the Electoral Commission for registration as a political party in the UK. But BLM, per se, is not the issue here. It is rather that the university has allowed itself to be used as a platform for a political ideology. In doing so, it has clearly aligned itself with that ideology. The University denies this charge, but this denial is demonstrably false.
The University of Edinburgh, along with other universities is a registered charity, in receipt of substantial public funding. The Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) makes it quite clear that charities must not endorse the views or activities of any political party or ideology – however worthy. Nor should they allow their institution to be used as a platform to promote the political agendas of others. The guidance is unambiguous:
“The main point for charities to bear in mind is that they must be independent of party politics and should be seen to be independent as well. This applies to political parties and politicians anywhere in the world”.
Aside from the issue of charitable status, there is a broader question of impartiality which the Culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, recently addressed in a letter to galleries and museums in England. Regarding contested heritage – statues and other historical objects that some find objectionable – he made it clear they were to be impartial in such matters and that a failure to do so, may result in their funding being withdrawn. He wrote:
“The significant support that you receive from the taxpayer is an acknowledgement of the important cultural role you play for the entire country. It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question”.
In a recent article, Tristan Hunt at the V&A, echoed this need for impartiality, when he wrote:
“Harried by chauvinism and iconoclasm, museums need to transcend identity politics and avoid joining one side of two warring factions”.
In my view, the requirement for impartiality is no less relevant to universities and HE institutions, than to museums and galleries. Universities must understand that the appeasement of minority political activists is never a wise strategy, because appeasement implies endorsement. Given the cultural diversity and fragmented nature of society today, this is the road to perdition.
If universities allow themselves to become platforms for any political ideology, they should have their charitable status withdrawn along with their public funding. The possibility of that consequence may help them to focus on their real obligations to students, which they seem to have forgotten; inculcating a love of truth and the intellectual curiosity and courage to pursue it.
Photo of Old College, University of Edinburgh.