Looking Back on British Universities


Welsh poet and playwright Dylan Thomas began ‘at the beginning’ in his famous play Under Milkwood. But when it comes to the present situation in British universities, it is very hard to know either where to start or how it all started. However, we know where we are. In the final months of 2021, we have had the terrible resignation from the University of Sussex of gender critical feminist and lesbian Kathleen Stock. Stock was hounded from her position in, of all places, the Department of Philosophy for adhering to and expressing the view that identifying as a man or even undergoing gender realignment through surgery and hormonal treatment to become a transgender female did not make a biological man a biological woman.

The student body rose against her, and the university administration failed to cover itself in glory. And before the year was out, we heard of proposals for a ‘woke score’ in the hiring of academics at the University of Oxford. A ‘woke score’ would work by assigning points that would increase the likelihood of employment on a range of ‘measures’ based, essentially, on identity politics. Thus, a lesbian of colour, preferably with a disability, would outweigh the usual apex predator such as a White cis-gendered able-bodied male.

The fact is that we have too many British universities, the number of universities in the UK having more than doubled in three decades along with the number of students, which has quadrupled. They now occupy approximately 40% of school leavers for an average of three years and then abandon them to a job market where buyers predominate. British universities have largely lost their way and University vice-chancellors (the CEOs of UK universities) are more likely to refer in graduation speeches to zero carbon policies, and equality and diversity than educational excellence or contribution to society. University mission statements more often include reference to climate change and inclusiveness than world leading research. They also pay lip service to widening access to universities while refusing to change the policies and processes that would really make a difference.

Free speech on UK university campuses survives, but mainly for those on the left of politics and then only for those who do not question identity politics or intersectionality. Prominent figures are prevented by mobs from addressing debates and professors and students are suspended for seemingly innocuous acts such as tweeting anything which goes against the grain of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Free Speech Union founded by Toby Young was formed to support anyone persecuted for expressing their views and has represented a disproportionate number of academics. With the speed at which the universities are introducing politically correct policies and acting against transgressive staff, this will soon enter a Red Queen situation. To keep up with cases, the Free Speech Union may have to dig deeper into its financial and personnel resources to such an extent that it may be impossible to keep up.

Specific examples include the University of Sheffield, a prominent ‘red brick’ university with a fine tradition of producing Nobel Prize winners. Sheffield produced a policy on microaggressions which included a list of innocuous statements such as asking: ‘where are you from?’ or ‘I don’t like spicy food’ which could be—but never reportedly have been—considered offensive by someone from a culture that does not predominate in the UK. The most sinister aspect of the Sheffield guidance was the suggestion to students overhearing apparent microaggressions by other students, whether causing offence or not, to report this to the university. Sheffield did remove one student from his course for expressing his Christian view on same sex marriage.

More recently, The University of Edinburgh, with an extant list of microaggressions has produced a more focused list of ‘microinsults’ referring to transgender people. These are aimed specifically at professors who may transgress if phrases which may be deemed offensive are used or they ‘misgender’ someone. But a university professor hardly needs to be told not to use the word ‘tranny’ with reference to a transgender person. One stellar and long-standing professor at Edinburgh, Dr Neil Thin, was suspended merely for questioning policies related to safe spaces and spurious accusations of racism. Leading science university, London’s Imperial College has entered the fray telling lecturers not to compliment students on their use of English or to assign students of colour to show visitors of colour around the campus.

I have explained elsewhere how British Universities are now in a ‘race to the bottom’. We do not need them all in the present form of large campuses with tower blocks full of offices and rows of lecture theatres. The pandemic has shown that we can deliver effective teaching online leading students and parents to wonder if university fees, and the ensuing years of debt are worth it. Vice-chancellors’ salaries depend on remaining upbeat about the future of university education in the UK. But it is hard to avoid a feeling of fin de siècle for British Universities.

Roger Watson is a Registered Nurse and Editor-in-Chief of Nurse Education in Practice.

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