Our Seditious Universities

Analysis of the votes cast in the 2016 Europe Referendum and in this year’s General Election revealed, among other patterns, two quite striking ones: that both Remain and Labour voters tended to be (a) younger and (b) better educated than the rest. This set some on the Conservative and Brexit sides ‘blaming’ the rapid expansion of University education in Britain in recent years for the difficulties they had experienced. There were several possible conclusions that could be drawn from this. The ‘elitist’ one was that Remain and Labour were the more intelligent or educated ways to vote. (But we’re not allowed to say that.) The one that many on the Right favoured, however, was that students were being over-influenced by the views of their academics, who were reputed, probably correctly, to be predominantly Leftish.

It must be this that has given rise to the extraordinary and alarming suggestion by one pro-Brexit Tory MP yesterday, that Universities report to the Government on courses that include studies of British-European relations, especially those that bear on the issue of Brexit, to the extent even of forwarding their syllabuses, booklists and outline lectures, and naming lecturers: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/24/universities-mccarthyism-mp-demands-list-brexit-chris-heaton-harris. That would have included me, when I used to teach the history of Britain’s relations with Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This is, of course, appalling. Apart from its being based on entirely erroneous ideas about higher education – that it consists of lecturers dictating their own views to students, rather than encouraging them to think (I see that Chris Heaton-Harris went to the University of Wolverhampton, an institution the existence of which I was snobbishly unaware of before today: is that how they’re taught there?) – it has brought to many critics’ minds the spectre of ‘McCarthyism’: policing teaching and so undermining freedom of thought in universities, which of course is the basis of all academic enquiry and teaching in a ‘free’ country. Universities will certainly resist it for this reason. Hopefully the Conservatives will too; even – or perhaps particularly – the Oxbridge-educated ones. (That’s one thing you can say about Oxbridge.)

There has always been an element in the Conservative Party that has opposed all popular education on the grounds that it would give the working classes ‘ideas above their station’. This may be what is behind Mr Heaton-Harris’s fears for the effects of Higher Education on the classes that have only recently been admitted to what had previously been a mainly elite cadre. Keep them ignorant, and they’ll be more likely to vote Tory. (Or for Trump in the US. Did his voters break down demographically the same way?) Benjamin Disraeli is supposed to have consigned this attitude to the past with the famous declaration he made in support of the 1870 Education Bill, passed at the time that Parliamentary democracy was just beginning to emerge in Britain: ‘We must educate our masters’. But only – Heaton-Harris would say – if their educators are carefully monitored.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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