David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Founding and running a university is hard work.

There have been many moments in the history of UK higher education where someone has taken a look at the current state of the sector and thought: “I could do better than that”. Many of our most famous providers owe their existence to religious dissent, or to a desire to offer a more vocational and more useful higher education, or to serve a constituency beyond what was then perceived as the “elite”.

In most cases, this early radicalism was tempered when the founding concerns became less salient, or when the ideological battles that informed them were won or abandoned. The various animating factors have bequeathed us a rich assortment of current providers (and a tangled history of merged or shuttered attempts). But why would anyone want to try again?

Three is the magic number

Globally speaking, there’s broadly three reasons to attempt to start a university:

  1. To serve an unserved need – be this regional, vocational, or a previously excluded group.
  2. To make money.
  3. To attempt to move the Overton Window.

What is striking about those in group one is that not all attempts cleave to the term university or any of the traditional signifiers. When Sebastian Thrun said in 2012:

In 50 years … there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them

He was not referring to an unmet desire to appoint a vice chancellor and a registrar, or to open a campus. Provision that aims to serves an unmet need does not need the “university” label – “institution of higher education” works just fine. Those who do adopt the label do so for administrative convenience – it helps in regulatory engagement to use the common terms – and occasionally as a signal of quality and social standing.

Signalling and disruption

In contrast, those in groups two and three are very much focused on university title. For these institutions, becoming a university (with all of the status that brings) is more important than serving students well, or conducting high quality research. In the main, those in group 2 are very rarely permitted to use the title university – and only recently has this become possible in England. In the US the word “university” is not a regulated term, and any number of enterprises can use the name and brand language of the university to attract fees and gain status.

Group two is an odd one as, outside of a very small and established clique, there’s really not a lot of money to be had in running a university. There’s a respectable income possible from student fees, but in order to attract students there needs to be a lot of spending (not least on academic salaries and estates) to offer provision of a saleable quality. Clayton Christensen’s concept of “disruptive innovation” in education failed to fly (something that even he has now admitted) because there was only a very limited interest in “minimum viable product” low quality provision.

A new Oxbridge?

There are always groups of prospective students that are not well served by current models. One 2011 call for an “Oxbridge for those who can’t get into Oxbridge” that would be “both socially responsible and immensely financially lucrative”. But Boris Johnson – for it was, inevitably, him – was canny enough to build in a bridge to group 3:

we – and I saw myself as provost or master – would decide what should be taught, how it should be taught, and whom to admit for study, and we would decide all these things on academic grounds and academic grounds alone

He goes on to praise AC Grayling’s establishment of the New College of the Humanities (now NCH at Northeastern), which initially promised Oxbridge-style tutorials with academic superstars for an eyewatering fee. This model did not work – the current NCH charges home students the higher level fee cap (£9,250), most of the promised “star academics” are no longer based there, and teaching now includes lectures, workshops, and group seminars.

But Grayling’s efforts (and, indeed the similar proposals for Woolf University – now delivering unaccredited short courses and “awards” bereft of the much hyped blockchain component) did at least come from a genuine sense that the Oxbridge tutorial experience should be more widely available. The fact that both had business models that made it accessible mainly to those with money is regrettable, but it was also the seed of a failure to grow as hoped.

Likewise, there have been many attempts on the radical left to start universities – Martin Levy wrote for us about the 1960s “anti-university” led by RD Laing, and we’ve also covered the work of the co-operative university group and the former Social Science Centre in Lincoln. These tend to be focused on the needs of students and staff, and generally either attempt to exist outside of regulatory structures or founder in engaging with them.

An Independent University

Arguably, there has been one hugely successful start-up in English higher education in recent years – the University of Buckingham. We may see others added to this list – both the London Interdisciplinary School and Dyson Technical Training sit on the OfS register, though neither yet feature in sector data.

Buckingham had 3,100 students in 2019-20. It has offered an innovation in provision – in the form of two year degrees, and has carved out a reputation for quality and rigour. And the founding philosophy of the provider is documented in a 1968 Institute for Economic Affairs occasional paper by Harry Fearns – “Towards an Independent University”.

Available electronically as a part of a 25th anniversary collection of essays entitled “Freeing the Universities from State Control”, it sets out four “principal reasons” to animate the movement that eventually established the University College at Buckingham in 1976 and the University of Buckingham in 1983.

A: independence

Fearns sets out a “moral and social” case for a demonstration that people on their own can meet a community need without any but the most basic of state controls. This is a poorly fleshed out animus, and feels like a tip of the hat to IEA orthodoxy rather than a real need for a university outside of government.

B: unsatisfied demand

In 1966 just 65 per cent of those with two or more A levels secured a place at university (I assume in the UK, the source isn’t clear). This statistic, and a set of anecdotes similar to those deployed by Boris Johnson above, are used to highlight the need for more higher education capacity – given a trend to link career prospects to higher study. The then “public sector of HE” (teacher training, polytechnics, FE colleges, colleges of commerce) was not a suitable substitute, as it was not of suitable status and:

Too heavily orientated towards training for one profession… to serve completely as institutions of higher education

C: response to the market

This is an argument against premature specialisation, and for a broader higher education course very similar to previous developments at Keele (founded 1949, university title 1962) requiring cross disciplinary study (at least initially) for all students. Fearns’ rhetoric that “there is a place in Britain for at least one university” to design courses to meet the demands of society seems curiously blinkered in this light.

D: variety

Because of state control and bureaucratic requirements – and the universalisation of the committee system – universities are homogenising. Only a provider outside of this regulatory world can possibly offer anything new and different. After all:

[the] existence of control through financial provision, and that this con-trol through the University Grants Committee, to which is now added the direct participation of the Ministry of Education and Science, has been the means of making a series of damaging mistakes the cumulative effects of which make it impossible for the universities to respond to the demand for higher education and almost impossible for them to change the direction of their efforts”

There’s some lines about “cottage universities” – high cost, inefficient, and ill designed -springing naturally from the rules of the game as they exist. But we are back to a new provider existing to drive out the cobwebby torpor and inspire systemic innovation.

Mostly 1 with a hint of 3

On this basis, we can see the ideological position as mere window dressing while saluting the determination to serve an underserved market. The sallies into the ideology of the small state are really diatribes against encroaching bureaucracy – familiar from The History Man through to the letters pages of today.

What is missing is a sense of a political project – an attempt to incubate and proselytise a particular set of ideas. It didn’t take long to arrive.

A controversial, if widely published academic had to be escorted away from the University of Sussex after a huge student protest. This was on 8 June 1973, and the academic in question was Samuel Huntington – described variously as having made important contributions to thinking about society and governance in the developing and developed worlds, or as a warmonger and Islamophobe. The then principal-designate of the University College of Buckingham, Max Beloff, made an early direct call for the protection free speech on campus in the UK:

The university world at large will wait with some anxiety to know the measures that the University of Sussex proposes to take to deal with the troublemakers on this occasion and to ensure freedom of speech within its walls on future occasions. (letter to The Times, 8 June 1973)

And Buckingham would enshrine this principle.

Perhaps those of us who are concerned with the building up of the Independent University should make more in future of the preservation of academic freedom of inquiry and speech.

This adds a very modern feeling concept to Fearns’ list, the idea of the university as a bastion and defender of free speech. The event at Sussex and responses like this also fuelled the development of the “no platform” policy at NUS – drawing the entrenched boundaries of a debate that still has salience in 2021 (Jim Dickinson and Mike Day have more history here).

Meanwhile in 2021

It is to this strand in Buckingham’s history that newish vice chancellor James Tooley looks to in a recent letter to the Telegraph concerning the protests around Kathleen Stock at Sussex and her new role at the proposed University of Austin. As he puts it:

Eric Kaufmann says that Britain needs a “university of dangerous ideas”, which stands up for academic freedom and free speech. We already have one.

Kaufmann’s piece was yet another example of the state-of-the sector jeremiads that seem to come along every couple of weeks. It’s the usual nonsense, and needn’t detain us here other than to note his involvement in the Austin experiment and that it appears to be too nakedly partisan even for him:

Some in the University of Austin movement believe that the project will spawn a raft of new entrants, make existing universities look bad, and kickstart a process of creative destruction in which reason drives out dogma. But I still think there is a place for intervention to fix the existing institutions.

The Austin rhetoric is, even by the usual standards of such things, pretty full on (Why Austin? The literal answer is “if it’s good enough for Joe Rogan”).

We are alarmed by the illiberalism and censoriousness prevalent in America’s most prestigious universities and what it augurs for the country. But we know that there are enough of us who still believe in the core purpose of higher education, the pursuit of truth. That’s why we are building UATX.

Funding will come from gifts from like-minded foundations – it will be “independent” in the original Buckingham sense. But unlike the original Buckingham, it doesn’t exist to serve identified student or societal needs, nor does it aim to rethink delivery or curricular coverage (the latter less of an issue in the US, to be fair).

Feel the quality

The look and feel of the website – the conventional (if dull) name, the Oxford blue background – coupled with the ambitions to build a campus and teach in person, betray that the need to become “a university” is far greater than the need to deliver courses in higher education. Austin will exist as an entity to employ controversial academics who are willing to work the “cancellation” route to infamy – what they actually profess and whether it is even mildly valuable or interesting is secondary, (as is the case with the Journal of Controversial Ideas) .

In essence, Austin wants to be a university because it wants to change how universities behave – which feels a bit like Fearns – but it also wants to hark back to an imagined golden age of the university experience with tutorials, star academics, and students that know their place – a bit like Grayling’s original NCH. It has very little interest in actual students other than as payers of fees and as repositories of “intellectual curiosity, perseverance, and grit” – which will be sorely tested by the innumerable “why I am right and everyone else is wrong” lectures a student would face from the roster of “star academics”.

Like some of the left-wing “free universities” it wants to improve the working conditions of academics, but unlike these efforts this offer stops at academics: administrators are largely non-grata (just costs to be cut) and students are hardly considered at all. And like the MOOCs of 2012 it uses a radical, disruptive and faintly apocalyptic sales language to offer something that is actually quite mundane.

The choice of the US system is an expedient one – there, you simply set up a provider and then seek regional accreditation (a concerted effort of administration best described in Adrian Pearson’s Cow Country). All kinds of places are and can be a “university” over there – and there are more than a smattering of institutions that would gladly appoint the whole supporting cast of the University of Austin in a heartbeat. However, none of them are respectable enough for the political purpose that underpins the idea.

The antiversity

But there’s one other parallel we need to look at. The “alternative right” is heavy on blowhards and light on thinkers, but if you ask around long enough you end up getting pointed to the “neo-reactionary ideas” of a software developer called Curtis Yarvin, who rejoiced in the nom-de-plume of “Mencius Moldbug”.

In the later years of the first decade of this century, Moldbug set out a series of political positions on a blog called “unqualified reservations”. His writing is unwieldy, to say the least – like Dominic Cummings without the snappier turns of phrase but with marginally better proof reading (Cummings actually cites Yarvin’s more recent work in his substack).

There’s a lot of horrible stuff in this corpus, but we need to deal at least in passing with his ideas of “the Cathedral” and the “anti-versity”.

The Cathedral is Yarvin’s name for the combination of established higher education and the mainstream press that is the real seat of political power in the west (this is ridiculously anachronistic now, but must have smelled a bit even in 2017). The phrase “cthulhu always swims left” refers to the way in which the Cathedral gradually steers the political centre in a progressive direction.

To implement the rest of Yarvin’s programme – which is of society reimagined as a kind of aristocratic joint-stock company (he loves medieval barons and dictators equality – he makes a number of prescriptions, one of which concerns the establishment of an “antiversity” to address the problem of the Cathedral:

The Antiversity is an independent producer of veracity—a truth service. It rests automatic confidence in no other institution. Its goal is to uncover any truth available to it: both matters of fact and perspective. It needs to always be right and never be wrong. Where multiple coherent perspectives of an issue exist, the Antiversity must provide all—each composed with the highest quality availability

This would act as a pivot around which to change society – in the same way that he imagines the universities wielding political power and scientific legitimacy currently (clearly he never wrote a REF Impact Case Study) the Antiversity would wield the power that could usher in this bizarre new form of government.

Dangerous nonsense from an obscure blogger – maybe. But that’s a story the UK and the US has seen play out already. The augmented reality game that was QAnon laid the scaffolding for a resurgent anti-vax “research” movement that has done more to attack scientific consensus and method than anything in living memory. An Antiversity may well be the next step in that game

12 responses to “Starting universities for political gain

  1. “Ever since the universities minister took up the cause of middle-aged female academics looking for new jobs after a bad experience of office politics, she’s been waiting for a new home for celebrity cancelee Kathleen Stock.”

    This contempt for alternative viewpoints and trivialising of the hounding out of an academic exemplifies the problem. I am afraid you’re hugely out of step with the public on this David.

    1. Completely agree with this. Wonkhe claims to be the “home of the UK higher education debate”, but the more that I read it the more I feel like it is reinforcing an academic environment where only one way of thinking and one political viewpoint is accepted. This is the problem that the Kathleen Stock situation is exposing so strongly.

      1. There can be no ‘debate’ with wonk’s, it’s not their role.

        I’ve noticed club-groupthink’s self reinforcing echo chambering effects have become more obvious of late too, with long term respondents views censoriously deleted if it doesn’t fit the narrative being pushed, one who I know personally has tried to post on other subjects following such censoriouslessness to find themselves unpersoned and unable to post, no warning, no debate, no longer a person.

    2. Agree. I’ve just read the Monday update and was shocked at that wording. As you say, contemptuous, not to mention spiteful and ageist.

      1. Yes this morning’s email was what compelled me to say something. Appalling!

        It is encouraging that I’m not alone in thinking this illiberalism is toxic.

    3. Indeed. Bad experience of office politics? A bit disingenuous there, WonkHE. That’s really not what happened, and you should absolutely know better. To compound this with transparent ageism and misogyny is really bizarre. Enough of this, please.

    4. Couldn’t put it better. Shameful trivialising by WONKHE of a very serious issue of cancel culture at an academic institution.

  2. These shifts represent the attempts by the Right to credentialise what they call knowledge. False claims of ‘cancel culture’ are a necessary enabler of that. This is nothing new – I recall many fundamentalist Christian colleges with deeply objectionable (including hompohobia) getting their degrees validated by the cash-greedy University of Wales before it was effectively closed down. This is, as you say, the next step on a dark and worrying journey. Saddest of all is that such institutional and personal actors fail to place students and science at the core of their existence.

  3. Read this in my email from Wonkhe: ‘Ever since the universities minister took up the cause of middle-aged female academics looking for new jobs after a bad experience of office politics, she’s been waiting for a new home for celebrity cancelee Kathleen Stock’.

    Disgraceful. The article linked – this one – is mostly in the same vein. I don’t know whether the Austin Uni is a good idea or not, but you are certainly strengthening the case for it.

  4. So glad many others agree about the spiteful sentence in the email. I too was shocked when I read it on Monday.

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