BRITISH universities may no longer serve any useful purpose. In the first instance we have too many, the number in the UK having more than doubled in three decades while the number of students has quadrupled. They now accommodate approximately 40 per cent of school leavers for an average of three years and then abandon them to a job market where buyers predominate. University vice-chancellors (the CEOs of UK universities) are more likely to refer to zero carbon policies and racial equality than educational excellence or contribution to society. University mission statements more often include reference to climate change and inclusiveness than world-leading research.
Free speech on campus survives, but only for those on the Left and then only for those who do not question identity politics or intersectionality. Prominent figures are prevented by mobs from addressing debates and lecturers and students are suspended for seemingly innocuous acts such as tweeting a hashtag claiming ‘all lives matter’ which goes against the grain of the Black Lives Matter movement. With few notable exceptions, academics in healthcare are too frightened to express views contrary to the orthodox Covid narrative, and the social media mob mercilessly round on any who do. The Stalinist healthcare system, the National Health Service, works in cahoots with the universities to terrify those with clinical contracts into silence.
The redoubtable Toby Young and his Free Speech Union mount a rearguard action in support of persecuted academics. But with the speed at which the universities are introducing politically correct policies and acting against transgressive staff, this will soon enter a Red Queen situation. The Free Speech Union may have to dig deeper into its financial and personnel resources to such an extent that it may be impossible to keep up.
Examples include the University of Sheffield, a prominent ‘red brick’ university with a fine tradition of producing Nobel Prize winners. Sheffield delivered a policy on ‘microaggressions’ which included an innocuous list such as asking: ‘where are you from?’ or ‘I don’t like spicy food’ which could be – but never reportedly have been – considered offensive by someone from a culture which does not predominate in the UK. The most sinister aspect of the Sheffield guidance was the Maoist exhortation to students overhearing apparent microaggressions by other students, whether causing offence or not, to report this to the university. Sheffield removed one student from his course for expressing his Christian view on same-sex marriage.
More recently the University of Edinburgh, with an extant list of microaggressions, has produced a more focused list of ‘microinsults’ referring to transgender people. The list is aimed at lecturers who may transgress if phrases which may be deemed offensive are used, or they ‘misgender’ someone. The details on the list are laughable and include such gems as saying that a lecturer should not use the word ‘tranny’ with reference to a transgender person, surely something they do not need to be told. Lecturers should not practise ‘avoidant behaviour such a (sic) moving away or leaving out of a group’ and not display ‘anti-trans posters, stickers, leaflets, particularly in toilets’. Does ‘particularly in toilets’ mean that it is more acceptable if it is done elsewhere? Intrusive ‘questioning about intimate details’ is discouraged, surely another sine qua non of social etiquette, along with ‘excess focus on anatomical sex markers, most usually reproductive organs’. Unless you are a health professional, do you ever speak to anyone, out of context, about their genitalia? Edinburgh has an outstanding record of research and teaching in the biological sciences. But the guidance on microaggressions against transgender people which prohibit any focus on genitalia as specifically belonging to one sex or gender will surely kill the teaching of certain aspects of biology. How is it possible to teach reproduction, embryology, and the development of secondary sex characteristics at puberty in a way that is inclusive of transgender people? The guidance is rich in prohibitions and thin on useful advice. One stellar and long-standing professor at Edinburgh is currently suspended merely for questioning policies related to safe spaces and spurious accusations of racism.
The global pandemic has essentially shown that we do not need all our universities. We certainly do not need them all in the present form of large campuses with tower blocks full of offices and rows of lecture theatres. It has been salutary to learn that we can deliver effective teaching online. It may not be universally liked by lecturers or students, but it worked. Students and parents must wonder if university fees and decades of ensuing debt are worth it when the glaringly obvious is apparent. In the face of too many universities and the evidence that education can be delivered remotely and effectively, economies of scale are surely called for. Vice-chancellors remain upbeat about the future of university education in the UK; their highly paid positions depend on it. But the early years of the twenty-first century are already ushering a feeling of fin de siècle for British universities.