Who regards university education as an advantageous rite of passage that needs to be rationed among a select group of beneficiaries, to promote a lifestyle that most voters don’t share, and to teach courses irrelevant to ordinary people?
Since you are reading this on TCW, you have probably guessed: it’s the Left. Not the slightly batty Left, responsible for an apparently serious proposal in last week’s Guardian to make universities into higher education comprehensives: it’s simple, natural academic left-leaning.
On Tuesday last week, Bath University’s Institute for Policy Research produced a report, “Diverse Places of Learning? Home neighbourhood ethnic diversity and the ethnic composition of universities”, based on carefully-researched figures on the social composition of the UK student body. Fair enough: but what is interesting is the conclusions drawn from these numbers (perhaps predictably, given that the two leaders’ published interests include “Spatial and Social Im/Mobilities” and “structures and experiences of power and inequality in education”). Reading this document is an education in itself, (if that’s the right word).
For example, the authors are enormously worried about a lack of black-Caribbean medics and dental students, and an overwhelmingly white cadre of vets: further research is needed, they say (always a warning sign, these words) to examine inequalities in access, because “[m]edical and health care workers need to reflect the diversity of the people and society they serve in order to provide the best possible care.” Hang on. I used naively to think that a person’s skin colour or representativeness made no difference whatever to how well he drew teeth, prescribed pills or tended glandered horses; but there could be something I don’t know.
Another gem: London’s elite arts institutions “are failing badly to reflect the diversity of the city they are located in. If we wish to create a meaningfully accessible, democratic culture within the arts and avoid re-creating the white elite-ness of ‘high’ culture, serious change is needed in the recruiting practices of these institutions.” This is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense to boot.
Great culture – jazz, painting, ballet, drama – is sublime precisely because it transcends race and nationality. It is neither white, nor brown, nor black: it is art, and it is open to everyone. If those who wrote this report have not danced to the rap of the Beastie Boys (white), read Alexandre Dumas (mixed race), listened to Kiri te Kanawa (Maori) or admired the landscapes of Robert Duncanson (black) it is their loss. If their wish is to perpetuate the pernicious idea of “black culture” (or “white culture”, just as bad), and encourage the belief that black artists do rap and white ones opera, then insisting on arts school quotas reckoned by otherwise-irrelevant skin pigmentation is an excellent way to do it.
The solution, as usual with the Left, is drastic, dirigiste, and destructive of the university as a place of free inquiry. Forget such things as the need to get students used to the difficulties of thinking for themselves: from day one there must be a dreary process of “embedding curricula and anti-racist educational activities that will create an inclusive learning environment”. And it must go on, and on.
Teaching students about inequalities of race, class and gender needs, we are casually told, not to be a mere peripheral activity, but something to be “incorporated into all stages of degree programmes as well as providing the principles for hiring practices and the way universities are governed.”
Again, just sit back and think about this for a moment. A maths lecture: “Next week is power series: but now for a mandatory lecture on the effects of colonialism”. A law seminar: “banking law can wait: please go to a compulsory session on racial inequality in Leicester.” You can fill in the blanks. And note the references to hiring practices and the need to eliminate the “predominance of middle-class white male staff”. Apparently those who teach in universities must now be screened not only by sex (sorry, gender, I almost forgot), but by class origin, with preference given to those who in infancy received free school meals, or some such.
The students? Here’s the answer: there’s a geographical spread of different minority populations across the UK and its universities, and “students are demanding change and universities must be seen to act.” You may not have seen these overwhelming demands, except coming from loud-mouthed minorities such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’: neither, in 40 years of university teaching, have I. But we clearly are ill-informed: this, after all, is a serious academic publication, and the authors must know.
So much for all this silliness. There’s more, including a conclusory statement at the end that the very function of universities must be to “aspire to create a more socially just, equal society” (teaching and the advancement of knowledge are so old-hat these days). But I will leave you to imagine it.
What is distressing about all this is that, apart from the figures themselves (which are impeccable), most of the rest of this is not research in the sense that respectable academics use the term. Unlike genuine academic writing or speculation, of a kind which deserves respect from professors, the public and government alike, it is in large part left-wing political propaganda masquerading as research. One suspects the writers of this piece intended in one sense to give the UK university system a bad name. They have certainly succeeded in doing this, though not (one suspects) in the way they envisaged.