Some Questions that Universities Should Ask Themselves after Brexit (But Probably Won’t)
M.L.R. Smith and Niall McCrae
6 February 2020
Universities have not only betrayed their historical mission to foster free inquiry during the Brexit crisis. They also have hard questions to ask about their moral standing, their impact on respect for expertise, and their own management and sustainability.
Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel once said that the most depressing thing about living in an authoritarian state is the realisation that not only are the people its prisoners but that the people are also its jailers.
If you were a Brexit-supporting scholar over the past four years you might appreciate Havel’s observation because the most depressing thing about working within the contemporary British university system is believing you are in a profession that cherishes the freedom to think, yet coming to realise that you exist in a condition of rigid orthodoxy, where the gate-keepers of that orthodoxy are your own academic colleagues.
Despite being in tune with the democratic verdict on EU membership, Brexit-backing academics were often made to feel trapped in one of Havel’s surreal people’s prisons: unable to express their views openly without the prospect of something unpleasant happening. There is much circumstantial evidence of staff and students encountering derision, social exclusion and verbal abuse after outing themselves as Leavers. Others, especially pro-Leave doctoral researchers and younger academics, dared not come out of the closet for fear of what it might do to their career prospects, whilst undergraduates were frightened of being marked down for advancing pro-Brexit arguments.
Looking back on the Brexit process raises serious questions about how the universities have behaved. These touch on issues much broader than the arguments for Leave or Remain. Brexit brought a lot of latent tensions to the surface. It was the canary in the coalmine.
Has the Moral Standing of Academia Been Eroded?
Soon after the referendum, one of the authors was in conversation with a senior colleague. Horrified by a Leaver in their midst, he declared: “You’re all Little Englanders”. That was it. No further elaboration was apparently required.
Such a statement was remarkable not so much for its vehemence but the ease with which it could be falsified (38% of Scots voted Leave, 44% in Northern Ireland, a majority in Wales: not all “Englanders”, quite obviously).
Imagine a student attempting the essay question: “Discuss the factors that motivated people to vote Leave in the 2016 EU referendum”. Answer: “They’re all Little Englanders”. It would be graded Fail: no argument, no evidence, no reasoning.
Such risible stances were, however, typical of a certain kind of reaction. It was most virulent on social media: people with PhDs and positions at prestigious places of learning going on rants about Brexit and the dupes who voted for it. Ex cathedra statements issued forth, uncontaminated by any evidence or wider justification, arousing views like those of Brian Dillon, professor of creative writing at the Royal College of Art, who fulminated that Brexit is “the result of a shameless choice by many people – the vaunted People and their Freedonian masters [sic] – to pursue xenophobia, racism and outright fascism. All the circumstantial explanations aside, you have to choose to be a bigot too”.
Whatever happened to scholarly detachment, intellectual rigour or even professional dignity, we might ask? With universities inclined to obsess over their “brand” reputation, maybe they should be asking whether the biggest threat to their good standing comes from within. Being exposed as bastions of intolerance and snobbery does not play well with the public at large.
Have Universities Undermined Faith in “Expertise”?
Scholars cherish their specialisations, skills and insights built up over years of study. Yet with 90 per cent of university staff reputedly backing Remain, how can a broader public take on trust self-invoked claims of “expertise” by a profession that has revealed itself to be not only unreflective of British society but woefully out of touch with it?
As noted by Lee Jones of Queen Mary University of London, one of a handful of openly pro-Brexit academics: the “lack of reflexivity has provoked a particularly deep crisis in political science, which has catastrophically failed to predict or understand the most significant political developments of our time”.
The discipline of economics has also been tarnished. Academic economists contributed effusively to “Project Fear”, prophesying job losses, slack economic growth, and general impoverishment. These kinds of predictions were all based on large measures of supposition and have comprehensively been proved wrong so far (see Analysis #11 - Why We Know Less than We Think About the Economic Impact of Brexit). All of these speculative efforts fed into a climate of alarmism spread by so-called experts, which projected shortages of everything from medicines to sandwiches, to Mars bars, to an outbreak of super-gonorrhoea.
Mistrust of experts was a theme during and after the referendum. And the reason for that? Perhaps academics should look no further beyond their own noses.
What was the Impact of Brexit on the Quality of Teaching and Research?
There is ample evidence of how opinion driven groupthink distorted research output. Studies emanating from the universities confirmed preconceptions about the cognitive deficiencies of Leave voters and were broadcast with glee. “Brexit caused by low levels of education”, The Independent declared, reporting a University of Leicester study that suggested a “slight increase in higher education could have kept Britain in the EU”. Academics at the University of East Anglia, meanwhile, claimed a link between Leave-voting and obesity. “Scientists” at UCL and Goldsmiths College pronounced that Brexit was linked to racism. The Remain-supporting Times ran a headline: “Science has a dim view of Brexit-voters brains”, imparting a university study showing that Leave voters were supposedly more impulsive, less numerate and more inclined to accept unsupported claims as fact.
Even if one takes such research at face value as objective studies without pre-determined outcomes, they are, at the very least, question begging. The infusion of obviously politically contestable statements within these studies, such as the assertion that the Leave campaign provided “an acceptable way to express xenophobia”, is a statement of opinion, not the presentation of fact. Why does so much of this “research” read more like propaganda than analysis? It also raises questions as to why countervailing evidence was ignored. Many of the prejudiced contentions about Leave voters have been thoroughly discredited, as the work of Madeline Grant, Noah Carl, Matthew Goodwin, and others, shows. Much of the research data, in fact, suggests that Leave voters are substantially more tolerant of difference than Remainers.
Leaving aside whether research that derided Leave voters emanated from a place of dispassionate inquiry – and we doubt strongly that it did – evidence of casual anti-Leave prejudice was widespread on campus. It was not uncommon to hear middle-class students proclaim that the “uneducated” should not be allowed a say on decisions they cannot understand, a view extolled explicitly by those like Professor Richard Dawkins, who declared that Brexit voters were “ignorant” and “misled”. Elsewhere, a politics lecturer at Warwick University prefaced their class with a PowerPoint slide stating that “Brexit is shit” (which students apparently found hilarious).
At a minimum the public might expect universities to be places where high standards of analysis and debate are maintained, and where prejudices can be challenged, rather than reinforced. There should not be any restrictions on the expression of opinion or the capacity to undertake research. But, as some of the examples above illustrate, one can lament that teaching standards have been compromised, while being disturbed by the extent to which research has rehabilitated eugenics-based explanations via the notion of Leave voters as tainted stock.
Are Universities Declining into Stifling Conformity?
The reputation of universities rests on the premise that they are forums for examining and testing propositions. The governing assumption is that they are therefore open to the free exchange of different ideas. Yet, the scholasticism of medieval universities was more tolerant to differing belief than the current ratchet of conformity in academe.
Radomir Tylecote, a senior analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs, found that there was very little scope to debate the pros and cons of Brexit on campus. Writing in The Spectator, he reported the following exchange with a Cambridge University student politics society, after his return from a conference in Romania on the liberal case against the EU:
Student: The problem is… we’re looking for something a bit more mainstream.
Tylecote: Mainstream? But this is broadly the view of 52 per cent of the UK population!
Student: It’s just that we had a pro-Brexit speaker once and it all got a bit uncomfortable, a bit… controversial.
Controversial debate in a university? Who would have thought? A survey in the Policy Exchange report Academic Freedom in the UK showed that many students no longer value freedom of speech. If anything, they demand freedom from speech. Universities have a perverse incentive in emphasising students’ sensitivities because undesirable ideas can be interpreted as harmful. A positive view of Brexit from the lectern might violate a student’s safety.
The difficulty universities had in coping with differences of opinion on Brexit illustrates the ascent of “narrative” as favoured truth over disinterested enquiry based on the examination of empirical evidence. This reflects the spread of postmodernist and deconstructionist ideology throughout the universities, which has led to the erosion of freedom of thought and a steady reduction in the quality of debate.
The notion of the university as a liberal project depends on the understanding that it is not the site of crude power struggles. It is rather a place where different viewpoints can meet freely, be discussed and evaluated. However, the university as a domain of power is precisely the concept that deconstructionist thinking introduces into the academic space. Once this concept takes root, the idea of the university as a sphere of tolerance is negated.
An ideology that pushes the view that intellectual discourse is reducible to power is inherently conspiratorial and paranoid. When that finds a home in the universities then, aided by weak or complicit management, of course it is going to initiate the struggle to assert itself as the hegemonic paradigm. That is its rationale. The result is always likely to lead to bitter polarisation, thus reducing debates to simple binaries with the ultimate goal of asserting the tyranny of the single truth (good vs. evil: EU good, Brexit bad).
Two centuries on from the sceptical enlightenment values expressed in John Newman’s The Idea of the University, the institutions of higher learning have fallen far, and with long-term consequences for the very existence of the concept of the institution itself.
Did Universities Sanction those who Diverged from the Anti-Brexit Narrative?
The formal posture of most universities was to argue for Remain. Universities UK issued a statement on behalf of Vice-Chancellors unambiguously endorsing continued EU membership. As Lee Jones remarked, these positions were adopted with “zero internal consultation and no consideration of the impact on scholars and students who disagreed with this”. The result was discriminatory. As Professor David Paton summed up:
The Brexit process has not shown academia in a good light. What should have been a free and open debate about issues crucial to the future of the UK has instead generated an atmosphere in which people holding perfectly mainstream views feel marginalised and intimidated into keeping quiet.
A Leaver who said something that could be construed as mildly injudicious on social media, or in a private capacity outside the university, risked being reported by zealots with the FBPE hashtag. Write something supporting Brexit, and you could be denounced by Remain-backing colleagues to an ideologically sympathetic hierarchy. David Paton noted cases of academics being forced out of important positions if favourable attitudes towards Brexit were detected.
By contrast, ardent Remainer academics had licence to insult and propagandise demonstrable untruths on Twitter or Facebook, on television and in the mainstream print media with little fear of sanction. It is hard to quantify the scope to which Leave voices were actively suppressed on campus, but that is not the point. Repression of viewpoints does not have to be authorised. It can function just as easily, and insidiously, informally through an endorsed “consensus”. The issue is whether university managers are prepared to acknowledge the broader atmosphere of intimidation they helped foster, which leads onto the next question.
How Good is the Academic Leadership of Universities?
University leaders adopted a highly partisan role in the EU debate, advocating for Remain and a so-called “people’s vote to save the universities”. Professor Stuart Croft, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick asserted that a no-deal Brexit “would be a profound and negative shock”. Such avowedly political intervention calls into question the judgement of those at the top.
The expansion of higher education has led to the emergence of the University PLC, with its emphasis on high-fee paying students, grant capture, research metrics, branding, and so on. This has empowered an echelon of university administrators who have little interest in liberal notions of universities as communities of scholars. They see the university not as a civil association but as an enterprise association – as a business model – as a corporation.
But what has this led to? Grade inflation; debased degrees and a proliferation of bureaucracy; a climate of conformity and moral regulation; enrichment for those at the top, and cost-cutting for those below.
Has the result been better universities? Not according to international rankings. Since 2014 UK universities have consistently slipped down the league tables. In 2017 51 of the 76 British universities fell in the world rankings. In 2018 Japan displaced the UK as the second most represented nation in the Times Higher Education’s survey of the world’s top universities (after the United States). To illustrate some stark individual examples: the University of Warwick fell eight places in this year’s QS rankings; King’s College London used to rank within in the top 20, these days it is lucky to scrape into the top 40.
If universities were properly managed as scholarly communities, would a story of decline be the one we now have to tell?
How Sustainable are British universities?
The persistent falls in international rankings – which were underway prior to the Brexit era, it should be noted – highlights the most significant “bigger than Brexit” policy question: what is the purpose of higher education? Is it advanced intellectual endeavour for the brightest minds, or a bums-on-seats production line?
We don’t need to be too lenient on the current crop of academic leaders in Britain’s universities to understand that, by and large, they only reflect the structure of incentives that attracts and rewards those who are in alignment with the corporate imperative.
Enticing ever more school-leavers into degree courses; pushing them out with a mountain of debt on to a job market that cannot recompense enough of them sufficiently for having gone to university in the place – you have to begin to wonder, as some close to government have, whether the whole edifice is just a giant Ponzi scheme.
Have Universities Succumbed to a Rationalistic Fallacy?
That so many academics adhered to one side of the referendum debate, and maintained their positions with such fervour, suggests they held their beliefs with great conviction. But conviction as certainty – conviction as infallibility – is an intellectual problem.
The belief that one’s views are the product of objective analysis informed by superior educational qualifications and are therefore the only rational ones to hold commits the fallacy of rationalism. As the reaction to the EU referendum showed, with some of the examples cited here already, many in academia regard themselves not as facilitators of thought but as arbiters of thought, which in some cases called for the outright voiding of the referendum result itself.
As Lee Jones again observed, “Politics is not Physics. Political questions are inseparable from value judgements”. At heart, he added, the Brexit debate reflected the different values that people attach to ideas like democracy, sovereignty, autonomy, and economic prosperity and so on. That Jones felt it necessary to point out this obvious premise itself underlined how scholars often came to mistake their own preferences for the ultimate truth, and purveyed a rationalistic arrogance.
The political philosopher Michael Oakeshott argued that rationalism in politics is a “relic of a belief in magic”, which leads to us to the penultimate question.
Are Universities Lost in Gnosticism?
Although this question may seem an esoteric one, it encapsulates the problems identified in all the other questions so far, which is whether universities are retreating into a belief that they are in possession of secret knowledge (self-invoked expertise) denied to ordinary mortals (especially dense Brexit voters), which holds the key to a post-national worldly utopia? If so, this is a form of Gnosticism, which is itself symptomatic of what Eric Voegelin called New Political Religions: that is, the search for salvation in the condition of secular modernity. In some ways, the ultra-Remain worship of the European Union was a debased form of faith. If they are not careful, the universities are in similar danger of becoming the temples of New Political Religions.
The Most Fundamental Question of All: Are Universities Capable of Self-Regulation?
The questions raised here are intended to be uncomfortable for universities, rather than for anyone who voted Remain. Many, if not most, people on both sides of the EU question were prepared to debate the merits of the case with reason and civility, and to accept the majority verdict.
Yet, British universities, as institutions that aspire to be held in public regard, have not lived up to these ideals. Their performance throughout the Brexit era has been disgraceful. They did not permit free, open, let alone respectful inquiry. They have not been impartial towards the expression of different viewpoints. At worst, they aligned themselves ideologically to some of the most extreme voices on one side of the debate and sanctioned people on the other. All of this is reflective of an impoverished understanding of a professional scholarly ethic and extremely poor leadership.
Badly led, lost in their own sense of moral rectitude, the universities contributed fulsomely to the poisoning the British body politic over the past few years, and are in danger of further degenerating into pushing dogma rather than fostering enlightened reasoning based on the free exchange of ideas.
Moreover, to the extent that some in the universities understood that they were politicising themselves by being partisan advocates in the EU debate, they gambled and failed, exhibiting bad judgement by over-playing their hand. To a wider public, they have succeeded only in confirming that they are arrogant, out-of-touch and, beyond some of the hard sciences, to be repositories of people who are not necessarily all that clever.
A reckoning is therefore in order. Ideally the institutions would, in the liberal spirit of critical evaluation and self-examination, be in the best position to reflect upon their conduct. But the most fundamental question of all is: are the universities capable of regulating themselves?
The evidence – and as academics we should deal in evidence above all else – suggests that the answer to this question is, depressingly, no. Few scholars – us included – would instinctively wish to see government interference in tertiary institutions. However, the universities now appear so estranged from an understanding of education as an enlightened endeavour that some kind of intervention looks likely. If so, the universities will have brought this down upon themselves.
Those in charge of Britain’s universities have presided over not just falling standards and declining reputations in international rankings. They have also overseen the pervasive curtailment of open-minded and genuinely progressive educational values: the quashing of freedom of speech, the limitation of debate, the silencing, if not punishment of those with inconvenient opinions. What the universities have done is wrong. They are the problem.
Just as society does not give licence to unbridled capitalism to run rampant, abusing monopoly power, without any accountability, so public bodies like the universities need to be subject to oversight and rules for conduct. What we are arguing for is not more restrictions, but more liberties and freedoms for students and staff: the freedom to think, to express and to argue without hazard. It is the universities that have taken these freedoms away.
About the authors
Professor M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory, King’s College London. Dr Niall McCrae is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health, King’s College London.
 See also Simon Goldsworthy, “Why Do Academics Keep Getting Election Predictions Wrong?”, Higher Education Policy Institute, 15 May 2017.
 See for example, Jonathan Portes, “There can be no doubt anymore, Brexit will make us poorer”, The Guardian, 28 November 2018; Thomas Sampson, “Voting for Brexit has already made the UK poorer”, LSE Brexit Blog, 4 April 2019; Neil Vowles, “Leaving the EU without a deal could cost almost three-quarters of a million workers in Britain their jobs”, University of Sussex, 12 December 2018; Benjamin Kentish, “Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan will leave everyone in the UK £2,000 worse off, study finds”, The Independent, 13 October 2019.
 See Richard Partington, “UK unemployment falls to 44-year low despite Brexit fears”, The Guardian, 19 March 2019; Russell Lynch, “UK economy will outpace Eurozone for first two years after Brexit, IMF predicts”, Daily Telegraph, 20 January 2020.
 For a broader discussion of some the ideas at work in this sphere see Jason Brennan, “The right to vote should be restricted to those with knowledge”, Aeon, 29 September 2016.
 Frank Furedi, What’s Happened to the University? A Sociological Exploration of its Infantilisation (London: Routledge, 2017).
 See also Joanna Williams, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2016).
 See also Anna Fazackerley, “2 VCs on… will Brexit damage UK universities?”, The Guardian, 20 September 2018; Sean Couglin, “Brexit: Universities warn no deal is ‘biggest-ever threat’”, BBC News, 4 January 2019.
 Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1962), p. 93.
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