Universities aren’t making students into lefty PC snowflakes after all

One of the characteristics of the campus culture wars is that every time one of the issues turns out to be a chimera, they shapeshift into something else.

I’m old enough to remember, for example, when Policy Exchange was suggesting that universities and their lefty lecturers were brainwashing students into Britain-hating, gender-fluid snowflakes. But now that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is all but passed (save for a skirmish over the legal tort), the self-same think tank (and the same lead academic) has decided that contrary to the actual evidence, it’s schools and social media that are the problem after all.

Two lengthy reports from Birkbeck politics prof Eric Kaufmann were published by Policy Exchange yesterday, both based on Spring 2022 YouGov polling. The first covers the politics of the culture wars in contemporary Britain, and another zeros in on 18-25 year olds to map the “culturally-left youth culture” that “underpins progressive parties’ overwhelming 60-point advantage over conservative parties among young people.”

The former reminds us that the split here is more generational than some like to admit, and the latter attempts to interrogate differences between those 18-25 year olds taking part in higher education and those that are not with an unhelpful “In education, Working and not in education, Neither” choice (you’d have thought a Birkbeck academic would be familiar with students who work while studying), and it’s true that those in education express more “PC” views than their working counterparts.

But what is striking is the extent to which those who are applying to university hold similar views to those already there. 56 per cent of those at university express support for “PC”, the same percentage as those who are working but plan to attend university – causing Kaufman to conclude:

Those who plan to attend university are as left-wing and supportive of political correctness as those attending, suggesting that schools, social networks, media and psychology, rather than university content, is the main transmission belt for cultural left attitudes.

Those at university were more likely to be anti-PC than both groups considering it – and given for those on a gap year, the pro-PC percentage rises to 65 per cent, he also finds that:

University students are, if anything, less PC than those intending to attend university, suggesting that factors which lead people to aspire to university rather than university itself appear to inculcate such attitudes.

We’re also reminded that in Kaufman’s 2019 research:

When asked how most students acquired their opinion on the Peterson and Greer cases, 68% said social media. This was by far the most important influence on student opinion on these issues, with parents well down the list at 14%. New partisan online news sites like Vox, Buzzfeed, Breitbart, the Mail or the Guardian came in at 8%. University lecturers and schoolteachers both scored a paltry 1%.

Remind me again why we’re debating a free speech bill focussed on universities?

We also get five tortuous pages where Kaufman attempts to find evidence that the reason that white working class boys aren’t attending university is down to political correctness – although in the end the buried lede in the data is pretty inescapable:

The main drivers of race and sex differences would appear to be the conventional ones: prior academic attainment as well as the higher incomes that males without degrees can earn compared to females without degrees.

That all naturally lends itself it suggesting that things have to change in schools – it’s the lefty teachers wot did it – presumably because like many others in the debate, Kaufman has to avoid suggesting that more controls need to be placed on social media lest said controls end up on those on the “cultural right”.

Teacher training, lesson content and even extracurricular activities are end up for closer scrutiny – and even mental health enters the frame, with Kaufman suggesting that:

…policymakers should pay attention to the impact of a boundary-transgressing “post-structural” youth culture, which encourages non-conformity and vulnerability, on young people’s ability to realise a stable identity and improve their mental health outcomes.”

What is remarkable about both reports is the way in which they both go hunting for extrinsic explanations for young people’s views. It may be that governing against the economic interests of the young for a decade has impacted their sympathies towards the government and its political positions, and it could be that social media exposes attitudes towards identity and history that they find distasteful – but their agency to make those decisions for themselves is never really even considered as a theory here.

And anyway – even if you really do believe that the young are being brainwashed, history tells us that sitting them down and telling them that they’re being brainwashed doesn’t help – especially when your YouGov polling doesn’t even prove it.

2 responses to “Universities aren’t making students into lefty PC snowflakes after all

  1. The government’s obsession with Universities is that at 18, students are old enough to vote and they know that the majority of Tory party members are either retired or approaching. Young voters and campuses is one area the government’s obsessive media propaganda machine cannot reach as they don’t read print media or hang around on their Uncle’s Facebook pages. The free speech bill is less about free speech and more about the government wanting to stretch its gaslighting campaign.

    In reality the younger generations don’t give 2 hoots about a phoney culture war and instead want to help create a fair and equitable society for everyone.

  2. I’ve only read your quotes of Prof Kaufman’s research, but it does seem to muddle correlation and causation in the findings for people considering unviersity.
    Surely a basic error?

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