It’s tempting to dismiss the wave of hostile media coverage – aimed this time at St Andrews and Kent over online diversity training – as just the latest salvo in the campus culture wars.
In the coverage, Professor of Education at Derby University Dennis Hayes says these online modules are “reducing universities to training institutions in woke ideology” – a view he’s been pushing for at least a decade.
Meanwhile Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, describes the training as a “very powerful and pervasive force… If you don’t sign up to it you’re marginalised. It’s a corrosive form of indoctrination” – a version of a view he’s been entertaining Spiked! readers with pretty much since it rose from the ashes of Living Marxism.
Thus far in this “phase” of the UK’s version of the campus culture wars, the sector has been relatively quiet – popping its head above the parapet now and again only to suggest that any “problem” with cancel culture is over-egged and that “debate” is, in fact, alive and well on campus.
But arguing that “debate” is alive and well is a bit trickier when the suggested “debate” is whether or how you should be tackling racism.
Ever since the Westminster government’s command paper heralded the arrival of a Free Speech Bill that will eventually take aim at anonymous harassment reporting, the identification of microaggressions, bystander training and the “implementation of critical race theory” into both the curriculum and conduct codes, the open question has been whether “head down, it’ll blow over, it’s just the media” is a viable strategy.
Put another way – is it actually practically possible to maintain that universities should have standards of behaviour that go beyond the law while also maintaining that people should be allowed to say and think whatever they like within the law? Don’t those positions contradict? And is there a sensible way through these tensions in coming years?
A helpful place to start is to look at where the efforts here come from – a desire for university communities to be inclusive and to tackle what some would describe as “unconscious” discrimination. Traditionally, the unspoken foundation of diversity efforts on campus has been about getting those that are “different” to be more like the “traditional” – encouraging “leaning in” through a series of sticking plasters/interventions.
So it’s interesting to me that instead of saying to students who are poorly represented “here’s how to fit in with them”, when we (for example) say to everyone else “here’s how to interact with people not like you” that the response is some sort of sophisticated version of my racist uncle saying that “they come here and don’t even learn our language”.
But while it’s straightforward to privately argue that this kind of fragility generates clicks, it also strikes me that the case for intervening at all needs to be made more regularly and loudly than it has been in the past. If one of the questions singled out for ire in the coverage is “Does equality mean treating everyone the same?”, that suggests to me that the sector needs to be on the front foot on even the very basic concepts with the public as well as inducting students into them.
Who is we?
The second thing that strikes me is that there is, in fact, a genuine tension when a community that is democratic in character seeks to adopt a single/settled view on an issue in relation to the conduct of the members of the community.
I don’t think it shouldn’t be able to – of course a community should be able to put its values into practice within itself, and it shouldn’t rely only on the law – but I do think it has to be clear how a view might be settled / debated / challenged.
The Miller case here is instructive. The story goes that as part of its handling of a case of allegations of antisemitism on the part of a lecturer, the University of Bristol brought in a QC who found that the comments Miller is alleged to have made “did not constitute unlawful speech”, but that a disciplinary hearing nevertheless concluded that he “did not meet the standards of behaviour we expect from our staff”.
One of the medium term questions that arises from that is who the “we” is in that sentence – and how that “we” debates, determines, settles, inducts and enforces these sorts of standards. That feels like an underdeveloped area in our thinking.
Similarly, we ought to be able to identify and explain the ideology or academic theory underpinning our equality and diversity interventions, and explain how they might be debated or challenged.
In the olden days
The third thing that strikes me is that critics seem to always be bemoaning a lost past, where a university at the top of a hill could look down on those at the bottom and observe them like lab rats – but never acknowledge its own role in generating, reinforcing or exacerbating observed inequalities and injustices.
I’m pretty sure that most critics wouldn’t want a return to universities as something that’s seen as totally separate from communities – and ideally need to think about how being part of society rather than separate from it can work practically.
But for all the work talking up the positive civic impact of universities on places, I’m also struck by how little the sector talks about the negatives. The “yes there’s a problem and here’s what we’re doing” stuff tends to manifest internally, when it would have long term benefits and give context to the diversity efforts if it was more public.
Other things strike me. Why is it that the sector constantly allows opposition voices to frame “freedom of speech” as a version of “PC gone mad” when it should be so straightforward to demonstrate how some students’ voices are constantly marginalised or silenced by cultures and structures deep in the academy? Isn’t that the real free speech issue?
Finally, the efficacy issue never seems to be debated. Ironically I’m much less worried about the glut of online training values modules working than I am them not working.
It seems to me that a university can pretend to itself that it’s making a difference by staging an online training intervention that a) might not have many taking part b) might have little “learning” impact on those who do and c) may make little difference to the incidents and issues that it is trying to fix or reduce in the medium term. It feels, in other words, like a cheap way to tick a box – and one that is extraordinarily easy to misrepresent in the process.
Ultimately I get the sense that the answer to all of the above is “more actual talking” – which would (have to) mean some current (academic, civic, corporate) activity gives way – but maybe even that would be shouted at as watering/dumbing down.
What I am sure about is that “doing a Starmer” by seeking to simply avoid the issues in the public debate because the government and its elderly electorate thinks it’s all “PC gone mad” both fails those the agenda is designed to serve, and the society at large that the sector seeks to improve.