Brexit and Britain’s Universities

Professor Anand Menon (credit: European Defence Agency/wikimedia commons)

By Professor Anand Menon and Alan Wager of Kings College London and the ‘UK in a Changing Europe Initiative’ (www.ukandeu.ac.uk). Professor Menon is former Governing Body Fellow and Common Room member of St Antony’s College, Oxford.

What is the point of universities? Two interventions by MPs late last year put the issue centre stage. While apparently unrelated, and whatever one’s views of either of the specific points raised, or of those raising them, they pose important questions for those in charge of the country’s institutions of higher education.

David Lammy was first up to the plate, criticising Britain’s elite universities for their lack of diversity, and calling for a central admissions process as a remedy to their inability to adequately represent the country in which they are based. Then came Chris Heaton-Harris, who posted a letter to university Vice Chancellors. In it, he requested the names of lecturers and copies of curriculums dealing with Brexit and the European Union — almost all of which are freely available online. Here, the issue was whether universities promote a particular world view.

As striking as the interventions themselves were the polarised reactions they provoked. There was near-unanimous agreement that Lammy had a point with his insistence on the need for greater diversity. After all, diversity breaks down boundaries and expands horizons, exposing students to new ideas and new cultures and, ultimately, helps students to learn where others are coming from. It also enables the best and the brightest, whatever their background, to continue their studies and, ideally, go on to make significant contributions to the country and its economy.

In contrast, Heaton-Harris and his letter were greeted with a chorus of disapproval. Part of this was based on a belief — which we share — that university curriculums, and those making them, should not be subject to input and pressure from an MP.

This, however, should not blind us to an important substantive point. Albeit implicitly and cackhandedly, Heaton-Harris was asking an important question: does the political homogeneity of universities work to break down boundaries, exposing students to new ideas and cultures and expand horizons and, ultimately, does it help students to learn where others are coming from?

That education begets social liberalism is one of social science’s iron laws. The evidence shows that this social liberalism is primarily a result of socialisation — the social experience of certain types of education, rather than factors like cognitive development, are what make students at universities more liberal than the average. It is profoundly anti-intellectual to not think about why this might be so.

Yet accepting this does not mean shying away from harsh truths about the practical implications of Brexit. Quality, authoritative and independent research on Brexit is crucial. It is also not to say that the curriculums devised should not be resolutely independent. Of course those teaching and researching in universities should not adopt a Panglossian attitude to political phenomena, in pursuit of a benign neutrality. But this should also mean that creeping examples of institutionalised groupthink are called out.

These, ironically, have been particularly marked in education programmes funded by the European Union. It was little short of outrageous, for instance, that the EU’s funding to those who teach European Studies should have been tied to the mission of acting ‘openly as intellectual ambassadors of the Union and its values’. Happily, this is no longer the case.

This problem should not be exaggerated. But neither should the implications be ignored: the exclusion of those with alternative views, and an inevitably partial understanding of social problems and ideas. A Tory activist claimed on Radio 4 that it was easier to come out as gay than Conservative at University.

Yes, students are adults with critical faculties. But they are also, like all of us, a product of structures, institutions and attitudes that frame the way concepts and ideas are processed and understood. This does not mean neutrality, but a critical awareness that ‘conservative’ as well as ‘liberal’ perspectives are a part of the conversation. As those studying social capital have long understood, opinions and behaviour are formed within groups, and therefore ‘people connected across groups are more familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behaving’.

Two factors affect the make-up of universities: what happens when students get there, but also which students get to arrive in the first place. This leads to the further question — whether there is a fundamental tension between the broad aims held by David Lammy, of attracting the brightest and best from the widest possible range of backgrounds, with the clear consensus over a particular world view in universities. The admissions policies of universities have long grappled with attracting the ‘brightest and best’. A question is whether the sector being a sustained and vocal advocate for a pro-EU position could act to distance it from much of the country in which it is based.

In America, the debate around campus universities has folded into a wider discussion about the impact of identity politics. This has resulted in the self-selection hypothesis: academia, particularly in areas such as the social sciences, is populated by liberals because it seen as somewhere for those with a certain type of attitude and convictions. Geography and class are the under-acknowledged factors affecting admissions (and outcomes) gaps in British universities.

Research on what explains the gap in family background and attendance at ‘high status’ universities finds there’s a missing explanation. It is not just attainment, even accounting for structural effects. There is a hard-to-pinpoint but important attitudinal gap, concerning the perception that the benefits of a university education — particularly high-status institutions — are ‘for’ certain segments of society. Analysis of data from the UK Household Longitudinal Survey shows those with Eurosceptic parents are more likely to be Eurosceptic themselves. It is not hard to envisage the mechanism that leads to increasing levels of self-selection for academia, based on the growing cleavages Brexit has induced and exposed.

Too much Hampstead and not enough Hull’ was the charge levelled by Andy Burnham at the Remain campaign, in the week before the EU referendum. He was right. The Leave campaign’s ability to tap into the drivers of social disconnect acted as the biggest campaign effect. Geoff Evans and James Tilley’s superb book on the working class uncovered this continuing divide, laid bare in the referendum. While 72 per cent of people with no qualifications voted to leave, only 35 per cent of people with a degree did. A gap of 30 per cent persisted, even when other factors such as age and region were accounted for.

Looking at admissions data from the HEFCE it is striking (if not surprising) that areas where the lowest numbers of young people go on to university are those with high support for Leave. This is particularly true in, for example, coastal areas of the East of England such as Broxbourne — which lie in the highest quintile of Leave votes, and the lowest in terms of university access. The picture of university admissions paints a stark portrait of the geography of social inclusion and exclusion in Britain.

In a political discourse increasingly structured around cultural issues, universities have a role in defending their research and their independence. But further education should not lose sight of the bigger picture. Universities should not stop thinking about what their wider purpose is and what, in the end, they are really for. That means expanding their reach across all sections of society. It also means cutting through social barriers, to facilitate understanding and engagement. Here, if universities can think in a reflexive way, Brexit offers opportunities as well as potential pitfalls.

Academics might wish their students took as much interest in their reading lists as junior members of the Conservative party whips office. But the actions of Heaton-Harris as well as of David Lammy should have given cause for a degree of introspection, as well as the outcry the former in particular prompted.


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