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When Two Tribes go to war: How should universities respond to the criticisms of wokeness from Matthew Goodwin and others?

  • 28 April 2023
  • By Nick Hillman

This blog by HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, looks at two new books that touch upon higher education and ‘wokeness’, including Matthew Goodwin’s Voice, Values and Virtue.

I was recently fortunate enough to spend a week on holiday in Paris. In the precious moments I could snatch away from queueing at Disneyland, this gave me the chance to read two new books relevant to the debate about universities’ position in our national life, including their relationship to ‘wokeness’.

The first of the two is Paper Belt on Fire by Michael Gibson. He helped set up and run the Peter Thiel scholarships for young people. These are reserved for those who either haven’t been to university or who have dropped out of higher education.

The book is a bit of a mess as it is not certain if it is a personal memoir, an anti-university polemic or a hymn of praise to Peter Thiel, meaning it flips and flops all over the place. But one fact shines through: the so-called ‘anti-Rhodes scholarships’ over which Gibson presided are designed to highlight the uselessness of traditional higher education by funding a tiny handful (20) of extraordinary people without university degrees to succeed.

I’m not sure anyone has ever argued that going to a traditional university is the only way for the truly exceptional to leave their mark on the world. But Gibson’s book includes, I think, an important insight. It highlights the gap between the growing diversity we’ve seen in higher education institutions and the apparent narrowing of views among those who pass through them, asking: ‘Why are there some 5,300 universities and colleges in the United States but only one point of view?’

The second book I read is the controversial new one by the Kent University Professor, Matthew Goodwin, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics. It has hit a raw nerve in the UK in the four weeks since it was published and it is even more relevant to the theme of wokeness. Goodwin’s book has been widely excoriated, including by many of those I follow on Twitter, though few seem to have actually read it. I suspect the opprobrium may only serve to pump up sales.

Goodwin says there’s a ‘new elite’ in charge who are less responsive to, or even actively dislike, the millions of adult Britons who want more say over their own lives and who voted for populism, Brexit and Boris Johnson:

the new elite have taken full control of the political institutions, the think tanks, the civil service, the public bodies, the universities, the creative industries, the cultural institutions and much of the media.

Of the differences between the two groups, the new elite and those of a more traditionalist bent, Goodwin says the level of education ‘has been the most striking.’ He lays the blame squarely at the gates of universities:

Britain’s universities, like many other institutions in society, are now morphing into ‘ideological monocultures’, when liberal cosmopolitan and progressive values are completely dominant, those who do not share them feel they cannot speak, and political minorities, such as conservatives and gender-critical scholars, are either marginalised or openly discriminated against.

I enjoyed reading the argument. The book is much better written and much more thought-provoking than Goodwin’s critics would have you believe. However, although my local Waterstone’s has opted to file it under British History, to me the book suffers from its limited historical perspective.

Goodwin dates the birth of the gap between the new elite and the working class to May 1979, when Thatcher came to power and started to break down old shibboleths. But even if the overall argument is correct, there were surely some important antecedents, such as when meat porters and dockers marched around Westminster in support of Enoch Powell’s opposition to large-scale immigration.

We are never told where such episodes fit in to the story and, given that Powell was also an early Brexiteer and influenced Nigel Farage, who does get space in the book, it seems just a bit too neat and tidy to portray the period before Thatcher as one coherent time with patrician leaders satisfying the demands of the working class and the subsequent period as something altogether different with out-of-touch liberals moving ever further away from the mass of voters.

Nonetheless, Goodwin’s book reminds me of the persuasive blog we ran at HEPI six years ago that argued it was the insularity of political studies academics that explained why they were unable to predict how voters would behave in the 2015 general election, the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US Presidential election. Have the reasons they got it so wrong been addressed?

So while Gibson complains US universities have failed to find a way to house those with the libertarian small-state views common in Silicon Valley, Goodwin say UK universities are out of touch with mainstream society and have failed to make room for those holding the traditionalist views of the British working-class on issues like family, community and nationhood. 

Both authors have the more prestigious universities in their sights, which is a touch ironic given they learned how to craft an argument in traditional higher education. But such views find some support in our own recent polling with the UPP Foundation, which shows most people have not visited a university in the last five years and in many instances ever. Over half of those from socio-economic groups D and E say they have never visited a university.

Yet those of us working in higher education like to think of universities as institutions that sit at the heart of their communities and serve them, while pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge to the benefit of all. While we may like to think of universities as bodies that help knit society together, the critics of twenty-first century higher education tend to regard them as bodies that have deepened society’s divisions.

You may think these arguments are overblown. Many people do. But our own polling at HEPI does show a clear trend of increasing illiberalism among students that is somewhat out of kilter with life outside. In 2016, we found ambivalence and confusion among students across a range of free speech issues. More recently, we found:

  • eight-out-of-10 students (79%) believe ‘Students that feel threatened should always have their demands for safety respected’;
  • almost two-thirds of students (62%) want tabloid newspapers banned from student union shops; and
  • over one-third (36%) of students believe academics should be fired if they ‘teach material that heavily offends some students’ (up from 15% in 2016).

A growing proportion of people – and not always the usual suspects – seem to think something needs to change. For example, at the Report Stage of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, Lord Collins, the Labour spokesman in the Lords and a former trade union leader, said:

My Lords, I have a confession to make: when I spoke at Second Reading, I expressed the opinion that this Bill was not necessary. However, during the process of Committee and the dialogue and discussions that I have had with many noble Lords—by the way, I have no interest as a university leader to declare—I was persuaded that there is an issue to address.

So I would argue we must do more to engage with the common criticisms. Most obviously and urgently perhaps, we should stop giving hostages to fortune that make it so easy for people to kick the higher education sector.

  • Of course, if students ban the Christian union from a freshers’ fayre, they will be attacked.
  • Of course, if you add trigger warnings to classics of English literature, there will be a backlash.
  • Of course, if a student society disinvites a former Home Secretary or a prominent member of the House of Lords after inviting them to deliver a speech, negative press coverage will follow.

It is no good just blaming the media when these sorts of stories appear: they are too juicy not to be reported.

Secondly, we need to teach students how to ‘disagree well’ by getting them to think through important questions such as:

  • ‘What is university for?’
  • ‘How do I listen to – and learn from – others?’
  • ‘What does reasonable protest look like?’

I have suggested before that this should begin in freshers’ week and continue afterwards.

I have mentioned two books already but a third recent book, Freedom of Speech in Universities by Alison Scott-Baumann and Simon Perfect, which focuses on the concept of a Community of Inquiry may be helpful here.

Thirdly, we should think about whether there are other organisations that can help. One 2021 HEPI paper by Richard Brabner, for example, recommends a UK version of the US Heterodox Academy, which works with universities to support viewpoint diversity and pluralism. The new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom in the Office for Students is also clearly going to be important in fostering the right conditions here and serving as a referee when things get out of hand.

In October 2022, HEPI published No Platform: Speaker Events at University Debating Unions (HEPI Report 153).


  1. Peter Scott says:

    HEPI was set up as a serious evidence based think tank. It was not set up to dabble in phoney party political ‘culture wars’. I hope other long-term friends of HEPI agree

  2. Robert Kaye says:

    Gaslighting, Peter.

  3. Neil Spurgeon says:

    I am very far from an academic having spent thirty years ‘beforebthe mast’ as an RN rating before entering an FE College to study and only undertaking my first and only degree, an MSc, at the age of 45. However, there is little doubt that what remains of the ‘white working class’ young men and older people in my area certainly consider a university, any university, to be an alien place where they simply don’t belong.

    I clearly remember my own trepidation in mid life ‘daring’ to apply for an HNC. Boys of my ‘class’ (I can think of no more suitable word) simply did not dare to darken the doors of Higher Education, indeed the division between FE & HE was totally unknown to me at the time.

    Many young men, even today, do not really consider utterly feminised, women controlled ‘uni’ as a realistic way to develop after school, they just want to slough off the school uniform mentality of overweening bullying teachers who, like HE lecturers have only one single way of thinking – completely alien to many ‘ordinary’ lads. Thank God for the FE Colleges that offer these folks a way out of their ghettos.

  4. Matt Sisson says:

    Interesting as always, Nick. I’m concerned that we’re heading the way of left vs. right in the US, where the divide is so embedded that communication and openness – a willingness to listen and learn from the other – has all but broken down, to a dangerous extent.

    Universities should be places of openness, communication, listening, and learning – a willingness, expectation, or even hope, of being persuaded to change one’s mind. It’s not too much of a stretch to say it’s at the heart of the scientific method.

    I’m beginning to think that the word ‘extremist’ should be reassigned – it shouldn’t describe how far left or right ones views are, but rather how fiercely and dogmatically those views are held in the face of the contradicting evidence…

    Of course – very happy to persuaded otherwise.

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