State funding is helping to perpetuate an illiberal hegemony over academia, says Simon Gordon.
Stepford Students. Little Robespierres. Snowflakes. Critics of censorship on campus aren’t short of epithets for their opponents. But they do seem short of solutions. Among champions of free speech, there is a reluctance to accept that an ideological hegemony in academia is partly perpetuated by the state.
According to the latest Free Speech University Rankings, recently published by Spiked, free speech has been restricted in some way at 94 per cent of British universities during the last year. Censorship ranges from ‘no-platforming’ speakers to banning publications to policing pronouns.
The argument for these restrictions is that the speakers or events would cause offence. Students are deemed to need ‘safe spaces’, where they may be protected from speech that might cause them emotional distress – hence the ‘snowflake’ label.
Yet the offence defence is largely a fig leaf. The issue isn’t offending people, but offending against the prevailing intellectual dogma – a dogma that is fundamentally illiberal.
Underlying the ‘safe space’ agenda is doctrinaire cultural Marxism, which construes society as a binary opposition between privileged oppressors and oppressed victims. People are defined – and either vindicated or condemned – by their perceived minority or majority status. This ideology derives from the postmodern ideas – surrounding colonialism, identity, and class – that permeate not just the subject matter but the methodology of the humanities.
The basic purpose of the ‘safe space’ is to silence those who challenge this paradigm.
This phenomenon is not, of course, unique to British universities. It’s pervasive across the Western world. In fact, it’s not even particularly new. The philosopher Allan Bloom wrote about the increasingly illiberal attitudes of undergraduates in The Closing of the American Mind, which was published thirty years ago.
But there’s more to illiberalism on campus than merely culture. British universities operate within a regulatory framework legislated by Parliament. Research that promotes cultural Marxism is publicly funded. The role of the state in enabling the restriction of free speech thus warrants examination.
Legally, public universities in Britain are required to safeguard free speech on campus. Section 43 of the Education Act 1986 mandates universities to ‘take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students, and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.’
Yet the obligations falling upon universities are conflicting. Later legislation mandates universities both to ensure the welfare and security of students and staff under their care, and to prevent harassment and discrimination by employees, students, and third parties on campus.
In practice, therefore, universities have freedom of censorship. University authorities can allow an event to go ahead, on the grounds of guaranteeing free speech. Or they can shut it down on the grounds of preserving security – even if that means capitulating to the mob. Either way, from a legal perspective, they’re covered.
Free speech on campus could be better protected if universities were explicitly required to apply existing rules in tandem. Rather than shut down events with a security risk, universities should be obliged to provide the resources necessary to keep students and speakers safe from violent protestors. The government could issue statutory guidance to that effect.
Yet increasing protection for free speech treats only the symptom, not the cause. If censorship is merely an extension of ideological hegemony, the question free speech champions should be asking is: what sustains the hegemony?
That leads to the question of funding. A few weeks ago, I wrote on this site about how the interests of universities are misaligned with those of students, taxpayers, and employers as a result of how public subsidy is awarded. As the UKIP Parliamentary Resource Unit highlighted in a recent research paper, Opening the British Mind, the structure of university finance also affects campus culture.
Research funding, in particular, plays a role in sustaining the ideological hegemony. Funding bodies may be independent from politics in so far as they are at arm’s length from the government of the day. However, they do reflect and reinforce the politics of academia – especially in the humanities.
The assessors of funding grants are necessarily drawn from the ranks of the assessed. The researchers invited to sit on Research Excellence Framework panels invariably reflect the academic establishment within their discipline. The seven research councils judge the quality of research based on peer review.
Consequently, the funding bodies are liable to favour research projects that support current orthodoxies, rather than radical innovation. Since many of those orthodoxies are explicitly political in the humanities, the system perpetuates the hegemony of a political ideology.
If homogenous input begets homogenous output, it follows that there could be greater diversity of thought on campus if there were greater diversity of funding.
Currently, direct funding from central government – both from the four funding councils and the seven research councils – comprises the single biggest component of universities’ research budgets.
A more heterogeneous funding model might broaden tax incentives for donors to fund research, while reducing the share that comes directly from central government. That would maintain overall funding, while diversifying its sources.
Among critics of censorious campus culture, though, there is a reticence to contemplate changing the system. Decreasing the state’s role is seen as “marketisation”. Moreover, the idea that the independence of academia is preserved – rather than threatened – by dependence on central government is rarely challenged.
The illiberal hegemony over academia won’t disappear if the state keeps feeding it. It’s time to starve the beast.