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Universities should stick to their guns in the face of culture war attacks – By Bahram Bekhradnia

  • 25 May 2023
  • By Bahram Bekhradnia
  • This blog is written by HEPI’s Bahram Bekhradnia, HEPI’s founder and President.

Nick Hillman recently posted a blog which quoted a book written by Matthew Goodwin in which he (Goodwin) criticises universities for what he perceives are their excessively liberal values, claiming that they have been out of step with the population at large. I need to make it clear at the outset that I have not read Goodwin’s book (though I have read articles by him in the Daily Telegraph making similar points), so my comments here are more generally concerned with attacks on universities and their values that appear regularly in some of the media and in the views and statements of some politicians.

What is it that Goodwin and others are objecting to? Generally, what they object to is ‘Woke’ – highlighting and implementing measures intended to address issues of perceived social and racial injustice. And universities are especially likely to have Woke attitudes and to engage in Woke activity.

It is no accident that the most vocal critics of Woke in universities are those – led by some media outlets and politicians – who are hostile to immigrants, who regard asylum seekers as criminals, who described the warnings about the consequences of Brexit as ‘project fear’, and who are hostile to net-zero policies designed to address global warming. They have also coined the expression ‘snowflake generation’ in response to the recognition by universities that discussion of sensitive issues – like racism / antisemitism, for example – can be uncomfortable for some and which therefore take measures to address such sensitivities.

It true that actions to address these issues can be taken too far – attempts to silence those who wish to express views that others find objectionable are misguided. Of course, it’s wrong to silence people simply because they might offend somebody – unless they break the law and in that case it should be a matter for the police (though admittedly we would need to be satisfied about an even-handed police force). There is no right not to be offended, and generally those who might be offended can avoid situations where offence might be taken. 

there is nothing new in students being intolerant of speakers who offend their views

But there is nothing new in students being intolerant of speakers who offend their views – older readers may remember the Garden House riots in Cambridge more than 50 years ago, which remain possibly the most extreme manifestation of attempts by students to prevent the presence of people of whom they disapproved (in that case representatives of the Greek junta). And to exclude literature from a course because it contains sentiments and attitudes that are unacceptable in the 21st century (of race, gender or religion for example) is born of well-meaning intentions taken to unacceptable lengths. If that were conceded, then Shakespeare would certainly have to be excluded from the English curriculum: other than the white English male, there is scarcely a group that is not liable to be offended by something or other in Shakespeare plays. 

But taking care to ensure that the curriculum is inclusive, accurate and meaningful to the diversity of the student population? Why not? It is absolutely right that the History curriculum must objectively describe the origins of the state of Israel for example and the brutality of much of British imperial history – if that is what is meant by ‘decolonising the curriculum’, then that is necessary and right. And let us not forget Michael Gove when he was the Secretary of State for Education insisting that the History curriculum ‘stop trashing Britain’s past’ and be revised to focus on ‘one of the most inspiring stories I know – the history of our United Kingdom’ –  and no doubt, rather than dwell on the evils of slavery that it should celebrate the fact that the British Empire gave railways and cricket to its otherwise ungrateful subjects. He backed away from his proposed reforms in the face of an outcry from ‘expert’ historians. And yes, that is the same Michael Gove who stated that he had had enough of experts, implying that he had no time for evidence-based arguments if these conflicted with his prejudices and preconceptions.

No doubt extreme and unacceptable examples of Woke-related activity in universities exist, but one has to look hard to find them. Yet these are the straw men created by the anti-Woke brigade as they find they are out of step with universities and who claim that universities are therefore out of step with the majority of the population. Nick quotes Goodwin’s criticism of universities for being at odds with those who voted for Johnson and Brexit. But is it really a criticism of universities that most students and lecturers are out of step with those who voted for Johnson and Brexit? I think it’s a mistake to invoke with approval anybody who criticises universities for hostility to Boris Johnson and Brexit, and who excoriates universities and those who work and study in them for this – Johnson having based his premiership very largely around untruths and Brexit now acknowledged to have been sold on the basis of lies. 

It is probably not even true that universities and those that work and live in them are at odds with the majority of the population. Although according to a Times Higher Education survey lecturers are in general somewhat to the left of the population at large, HEPI surveys show students more or less exactly match their peers in their voting intentions. And in the process that gives lie to the proposition that left-wing lecturers are poisoning the minds of students.

If they are wrong, then by all means explain why they are wrong but don’t just condemn them because they are at odds with readers of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. There is good survey evidence that the population takes a liberal view of a whole host of issues that are regarded as Woke – the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey found ‘what was once often a widespread (more socially conservative) point of view is now more of a minority outlook – a cultural change with which perhaps some social conservatives are uncomfortable’. But that is not the point. The point is whether those within universities who take a different view to that of Goodwin and others of like mind are wrong to do so.

And in any case, those who think that the liberal establishment is out of touch need to stop to think why the better educated are more liberal and rational in their outlook than the less well educated. What is it about education that tends to make people more liberal? Or rather what is it about a lack of education that makes people tend to be less liberal? That is well attested: previous sweeps of the National Child Development Study found that level of education was directly correlated with liberal attitudes, greater social engagement and likelihood to vote, success in child-rearing, successful marriages, better health and lower levels of criminality. Something, incidentally, that those who advocate reducing opportunities for university education should reflect upon.

If the proposition is that universities should concede that experts and expertise should give way to gut feelings and belief, then universities should be robust in their rejection and stick to their guns. 

Of course there are issues – but they are not new. And if Nick’s point is that universities should be better at explaining themselves, then yes, there may be something in that. But given the record of most of the mainstream media, I personally have no confidence that whatever efforts universities make to do so will be given a proper hearing.


  1. Andrew says:


  2. John Brennan says:

    Great! Just reminds me of the function of universities as being ‘troublesome institutions’! Yes! Though probably not good for funding.

  3. A spirited, eloquent and well-reasons defence of higher education policies pertaining to politically controversial questions on campus. But it doesn’t really deal with the very real issues that critics of ‘woke’ – from Jordan Peterson to Douglas Murray to R.K. Rowling – seek to address. If it’s impossible to square Prof. Kathleen Stock’s fate at the hands of the Oxford student’s union with any traditional notion of free speech, then what seems to be called for is more than just the standard defence that all that the universities are doing is simply defending liberal values. Her case is not unique, and there is something there in the gender and sexuality hysteria which wasn’t there in previous generations. Allied with the new technologies for ‘rage production’ and ‘rage monetisation’, there’s something new there which faculty and campus authorities have not had to deal with before.

    What has shifted, in the half-century since I personally started studying during the sixties, are the background assumptions, the criteria, the unstated premisses on how to remedy what it is that is amiss, when we’re talking about injustice *in general* – long before one starts talking about specific instances. (Including the objective status/role of the person ‘calling out’ instances of injustice: it matters if you know that law students, the Vice-Chancellor, people with political connections and potential ‘clout’ are listening to – or reading – what it is that you find objectionable. Most especially in situations where the injustice is a literal one, in the sense of: the act or behaviour or event in question really is covered by a law, meaning that the option of ‘lawyering up’ is a real one.) One behaves differently on the assumption that the rule of law is real and actionable than one does on the assumption that ‘the system’ is corrupt, that ‘everything’ bears the traces of historical or ‘systemic’ injustice going back to the beginning of time. If one adds the bit that comes from sociologists and psychologists studying how demagogy works, it’s clear that we’ve arrived in Orwell and Huxley territory: it’s *also* necessary, in all of the above, to keep a weather eye open for those capable of playing on our proclivities for fear, angst, paranoia. We can be stampeded into things – if you’re a ‘Continental’ following all of this from across the Channel, as I am, there are real historical examples to point to, within living memory. Many, no doubt the majority of university people during the sixties, were convinced that liberal values and democratic process were not only real, but that in situations where one couldn’t be all that sure, that was the way to go. Not just domestically, but internationally. Isaiah Berlin, Bertrand Russell, even Popper were the ‘voices of reason’ at a time when it would have been completely impossible to impugn their reputation with the red herring argument that they were ‘white men’, or the now drearily familiar arguments in the same vein.

    I don’t think HEPI is really doing itself and its readers a service by not probing these very real changes that have occurred on Western campuses over the last several generations. One of the placards held up at the Oxford protests that hounded Prof. Stock off the campus read: “Dead trans children”. Whatever the emotional turmoil going on in young minds on campus today, one needs psychologists and other social scientists to tell us – and admin – what is going on there. It was the UK – ‘Great Britain’ – that once stood up against the worst of the hysterias coming out of the French Revolution, and it cemented its reputation as the centre of liberal values and free speech for a ‘long century’. There’s not much evidence that today’s enemies of free speech are less harmful than previous generations – and a fair amount to point to the contrary. Ask the above names.

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