Woke universities and woke students – chicken and egg?

At the weekend the Telegraph told us that a majority of the public would want those who make offensive remarks in their teens to be “given a break”.

Scooping up reaction to one of the biggest culture wars stories of the week, polling found that 45 per cent of respondents said they approved of the condemnation by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden of the England Cricket Board (ECB) for suspending Ollie Robinson, the England cricketer, for historical sexist and racist tweets. 23 per cent disapproved.

It also found 44 per cent disagreeing with statues of historical figures being taken down if their views or actions are now considered unacceptable (33 per cent pro), and 53 per cent opposing the use of gender-neutral terms in place of words such as “mother” – although when it came to universities facing fines for failing to protect free speech under the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, 41 per cent disagreed, while only 33 per cent said they backed the proposals.

The detailed tables are out from polling specialists Redfield and Wilton Strategies, and as ever a dive into the questions and the cross-breaks is fascinating.

On “taking the knee”, the Telegraph fails to inform its readers that a majority support the gesture – 37 per cent with 28 per cent opposing, which is perhaps why the Prime Minister came out in support last week. But as is becoming a pattern now, for 18-24s it’s 50 per cent support and 11 per cent oppose – while for those over 65, it’s 30 per cent support and 46 per cent oppose. There’s also an interesting split over who thinks the gesture has had a positive impact – half of 18-24s (with 15 per cent saying negative) but just 24 per cent of those 65 plus.

What’s even more fascinating is that when it comes to asking people whether footballers should have the right to take the knee, 59 per cent agree and 17 per cent disagree without much variation across the age ranges. And when it comes to whether fans should have the right to boo them if they do, it’s roughly 4 in 10 that agree and disagree respectively, again without much variation across the age ranges.

When it comes to “no platforming”, framed here as universities being allowed to “prevent speakers with views that may be deemed by some to be offensive from speaking at events on campus”, 28 per cent agree and 46 per cent disagree. That “agree” figure does vary by age but not hugely – 35 per cent for 18-24s and 19 per cent for over 65s.

Views diverge by age much more markedly over statue removal – 58 per cent of under 25s agree but just 15 per cent of over 65s. Gender neutral language is supported by 45 per cent of under 25s (37 per cent NAND) but just 8 per cent of over 65s. And 53 per cent of under 25s agree with giving money to Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme, with just 16 per cent of over 65s agreeing.

Oh – and when it comes to those who think they’re “woke”, 55 per cent of under 25s agree (26 per cent NAND) and just 10 per cent of over 55s.

For me the interesting question that that all raises is the extent to which we might expect institutions like universities to reflect the values of the majority of their students. The tone and content of the criticism of universities suggests that the government is repeatedly reflecting the views of the 55+ column, and somehow blames universities and their students’ unions for brainwashing or inculcating these views and values that seem fairly alien to the over 55s.

But what if this is, in fact, how those at that both ends of the age spectrum actually think – and universities are, in fact, merely reflecting the dominant values of those they recruit? Wouldn’t it be weird in a market system for universities to not reflect the dominant values of those they are competing to recruit, albeit with a need to sensibly safeguard those with different views? It’s even more of an issue for SUs – as democratic representative organisations, surely it would be a massive failure if they failed to reflect these views?

Not nearly enough of this polling looks at the views of 16 or 17 year olds, and hardly any of it seeks to split the 18-25 cross break by student and non-student, which is a shame. It would be useful to know if there is causation and in which direction.

One other observation – the proportion of those that answer either “strongly agree” or “strongly disagree” on any of the questions is significantly lower than you’d believe if you read the papers or spent time on Twitter, and number ticking “neither agree nor disagree” is pretty high on most of the questions too.

It looks like folks are fairly open minded on much of the content of the culture wars – expect when it comes to the fining of universities for banning speakers. It’s pretty much the only question where all but one of the age splits (55-64s) where there’s a majority opposed.

3 responses to “Woke universities and woke students – chicken and egg?

  1. I still don’t believe the culture wars even exist. If ever their was a definition of ‘fake news’ then this is it: a manufactured ‘debate’ put in place by the tabloids and the government to give the populace something to aggrevate at as a cover up for the ineptitude, corruption, totalitarianism and cronyism of the current cabinet. Things that take place on the cesspool of comments sections (irony aware of) and Facebook pages of the internet are not equal to the opinions of the average member of the public walking down the street.

    To be woke is to want a more progressive and fair society and I don’t think I have ever met anyone of sound mind that did not also want such a thing.

  2. Personally, I ultimately think it boils down to a combination of people not wanting to feel criticised, and the idea that is widely spread of resources being taken away from them.

    Ultimately, a lot of people see a readdressing of the balance (to bring people who have been systemically deprived or treated poorly, up to an equal footing) as “preferencial treatment”, and therefore unfair. I think honestly a lot of the time it comes down to a naivety about how much inequality and hostility there still is towards marginalised groups – it’s easy to take a surface level look and say “well we have gay marriage now, it’s the best time in history there has ever been for equality, so what is everyone complaining about!?”.

  3. A feature which appears to postulate that young people and older people (the over-55s in this case) are out of synch within higher education and somehow in conflict with one another attitudinally. While there are differences between age groups, the Social Attitudes of Young People surveys a) categorically demonstrate that younger age cohorts do not have uniformly liberal social attitudes and b) find no evidence of widespread resentment among young people towards older generations. Really, the most pertinent take-away is the one the article starts out with, when reviewing the Ollie Robinson story: a reminder that some young people may, for a variety of reasons, express opinions that offend others and which they later regret as their behaviours change and they become more sensitised. Of course, older persons are far from immune from the same tendency but in general there is a difference in behaviour, as distinct from attitudes, that is age-related. As a group, young people are more prone to smoking, drug experimentation, alcoholism, reckless driving, and many other unhealthy patterns of behaviour, to which ill-considered tweets can be added. Professionals working with communities of young people (initially as educators, subsequently as employers) have to confront, understand, manage and as appropriate forgive transgressions. These professionals tend to be older, of course. The closer you look at relations between the generations in higher education, the healthier they appear.

    Taking the knee is a different topic entirely. In passing though, it should be noted that 37% is not a majority (51% would be a majority) and that if the survey data is to be believed there is either no majority support or perhaps only a small one among the 18 to 24 age group. This does not mean that half of the youth are in some way dreadful people – it is just indicative of the fact that, as a group, they do not have uniformly liberal social attitudes and are actually fairly hetrogenous.

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