Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics at Kent University, has written a terrific piece for UnHerd about the HEPI poll of university students that I wrote about in the Spectator this week. After documenting the lurch towards intolerance in British universities – as evidenced by the poll – Goodwin offers a three-part explanation for why this has happened.
First, it reflects a shift in attitudes between generations arising from their different coming-of-age experiences.
Millennials and Gen-Xers came-of-age in the Eighties and the Nineties, sandwiched between Thatcher and Blair. Politics was turbulent but also more stable. People were generally committed to the two main parties. The agenda was more economic than cultural. And there was still a diverse range of voices in politics, media, creative, and cultural institutions, which helped to ensure that people were exposed to alternative views. The growing education-based polarisation between graduates and non-graduates had not yet intensified. And the far more liberal graduate class had not yet taken over the institutions.
Zoomers, in sharp contrast, have grown up in a completely different world. They were 13 when the Trump and Brexit revolts erupted and they spent their adolescence living amid what political scientists call “affective polarisation” — a far more divisive, volatile, and emotion-led politics in which Remainers and Leavers, liberals and conservatives, have simultaneously became more positive about their own tribe and more openly hostile toward the opposing side.
Aside from being the first generation to witness a strong populist Right (UKIP) and a strong populist Left (Corbyn), they have been raised by parents who have more openly taken sides in this more polarised environment — symbolised by the 36% of Remain-voting parents who would “feel upset” if their child married a Brexiteer, and the 21% of Brexit-voting parents who would feel similarly if their child were to marry a Remainer.
Given this polarisation is underpinned by the growing educational divide between more culturally liberal graduates and more conservative non-graduates, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that the university students who are self-selecting into universities have also become more focused on prioritising the needs of their own tribe and more willing to ostracise others.
Second, Zoomers are the first generation to be immersed in what the sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning call the Culture of Victimhood.
Unlike moral cultures in the past, which stressed dignity and honour, and put an emphasis on toleration and negotiation as a route out of conflict, victimhood culture encourages students to stress their oppression, marginalisation, and victimhood as a means of acquiring status from their peers; while simultaneously turning to third parties (i.e., university administrators) to punish those who are seen to be “oppressing” or merely challenging their safety and beliefs.
This is reflected in the finding this week that 64% of students now think that universities should “consult special interest groups (i.e. religious or gender societies) about on-campus events”, up from only 40% in 2016. And in the finding that 61% of students now think that main job of the university is to ensure that all students are protected from discrimination rather than allow unlimited free speech, up from only 37% in 2016.
The rise of this victimhood culture is also, almost certainly, being encouraged by the broader ideological evolution of Britain’s universities. As my research, and that of others, has shown over the past four years, these are morphing into “ideological monocultures” where the ratio of Left-wing to Right-wing academics has increased from three to one in the Sixties to around eight to one today. Much like institutions in America, it is increasingly hard to find visible conservatives or other nonconformists on campus. Some students will now go through their entire degree never really knowing one at all.
One basic problem with monocultures is they embolden the most radical activists to lash out against others, safe in the knowledge that the moderates won’t challenge them. In turn, significant numbers of academics openly admit to being biased against conservatives, including one in three who would not hire a known Brexit supporter. Most conservative and gender critical scholars say they are self-censoring on campus, as do one-quarter of all university students, while those on the right or who do not subscribe to the new orthodoxy on campus are especially likely to do so, underlining the impact of this new moral culture.
Nor is this lost on students themselves. While prominent academics sit on Twitter arguing that the crisis unfolding in our universities represents a moral panic being whipped up by Right-wing campaigners, the students who are actually sitting in their seminars and lectures are increasingly taking the opposite view — the latest report finds that 38% of students think “universities are becoming less tolerant of a wide range of viewpoints”, up from 24% in 2016.
Third, organisational changes in universities have meant students-as-customers have become more empowered, with ‘student satisfaction’ being the all-important metric by which universities judge themselves.
Conservatives are as much to blame as the Left. By focusing relentlessly on the marketisation of universities, by talking about students as consumers, we have created a climate in which the demands of students, not academics, increasingly shape our intellectual culture. Almost all the changes that are being imposed on higher education for largely political reasons — the decolonisation of reading lists, the imposition of ideological litmus tests such as “diversity statements” when applying for jobs or grants, decisions regarding who speaks and works on campus and who does not, and the transformation of universities more generally into hyper-political organisations — are now often made in the name of “student satisfaction”. This is further encouraged by the rampant spread of university bureaucracy, in which cowardly administrators — none of whom really understand the point of academe — routinely bend over backwards to ensure that student-led demands to have events removed, academics investigated, and new restrictive policies implemented are fully met and satisfied.
This is a really excellent analysis by Professor Goodwin (a member of the Free Speech Union’s Advisory Council) and very much worth reading in full.
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