Opinion piece by Howard Hotson

The new counter-terrorism bill emerging from the Home Office late in 2014 includes a significant piece of ad hoc university legislation: the requirement that universities ban ‘extremists’ from speaking on campus. This proposed legislation seems at first sight completely unconnected to the ‘radical reform’ of higher education funding which issued from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills four years ago. Closer analysis shows, however, that it is cut from the same cloth.

That extremists should be banned from schools probably strikes most people as intuitively obvious, or would if we could define extremism and identify extremists satisfactorily. The reason is that schools are full of children, and children are generally regarded as lacking the capacity to assess controversial claims and to form defensible personal judgments of them.

But are extremists to be banned from universities on the same grounds? Are university students now to be regarded as children as well – older but little wiser, and lacking that crucial faculty: trained, discriminating intelligence? If so, it is because the core purpose of university has recently been consciously redefined.

The sovereign goal of a well-rounded university education was once regarded as the development of precisely that intellectual quality which distinguishes children from well-educated adults: the capacity independently to form defensible opinions on controversial questions. This capacity was to be developed by nurturing a core set of fundamental skills: the ability to distinguish sound from unsound claims and valid from invalid reasoning in a rigorous way, to identify the hidden assumptions underlying an argument and to trace them to their logical conclusions, to test them against a base of knowledge and considerations of value, and to develop one’s own views in frank and open discussion with others, especially with those of differing views. Debating contentious ideas was a process in which the academic community not only tested ideas but also honed the skills needed to test them. That’s why universities were once regarded as the places, par excellence, in which unorthodox ideas were rigorously examined in open debate, rather than suppressed by government fiat.

But is this still the dominant conception of the university? The ‘radical reform’ of British higher education has redefined the core purpose of education as the acquisition of the skills necessary to advance the UK’s prosperity in a globalized economy. In this new environment, fundamental humanistic disciplines like philosophy, literature and history, and the intellectual skills which they above all cultivate – logical, rhetorical, and linguistic analysis; moral reasoning; the sifting of historical evidence; and familiarity with the ideological traditions upon which extremists base their arguments – are now influentially disparaged as virtually useless, as are most of the social sciences, with the telling exception of economics.

Still more to the point, society has withdrawn the explicit, economic value it used to place upon ensuring that the sustained study of subjects like these was available to any young person able and willing to pursue it. Instead, students themselves are left to judge whether acquiring these fundamental skills is worth, not only the opportunity cost of not studying something more immediately practical, but also £27,000 plus living expenses, chargeable to themselves in the first instance.

In other words, we have re-engineered our university funding system to privilege the production of knowledge workers, trained in specific techniques for making money, over the education of critical and informed citizens, schooled in the broader and less specific capacity to form critical judgments about basic cultural and intellectual values. And this links the systematic ‘reform’ of higher education with the ad hoc university policy issuing from the Home Office. We now no longer believe that teaching young people to think for themselves is the university’s core function. We have therefore withdrawn the public support needed to ensure that the university performs that function. Without that teaching, we now doubt that the student community is capable of thinking clearly on difficult and controversial subjects. And we conclude that government must step in to protect students from dangerous ideas against which they can no longer be expected to protect themselves.

But enough of students. What about the lecturers, readers and professors who share the university with them. Are they also now regarded as intellectually defenceless against ideological extremism as well? Why might the Home Office minister suppose that today’s lecturer or professor is as unwilling and unable as today’s student to confront a lunatic preacher in open debate? Again, the list of possible explanations is worryingly long. Is it because, for an entire generation, successive UK governments have required that humanists and social scientists spend all their free time polishing up the footnotes of their next specialized research article, rather than acquiring the agility, the experience, the nerves, and perhaps even the breadth of knowledge to defend core values and institutions in open debate? Or because academics have more recently been instructed to think that anything they do for students on campus doesn’t ‘count’ either as ‘research’ or as ‘impact’ and therefore has no publically ‘accountable’ value at all? Or because academics are now too entangled in government-imposed bureaucracy to respond to the needs of the moment? Or because university post-holders have been deprived of any impulse to active citizenship by being stripped of all direct participation in the governance of their own institutions? Or is it perhaps that academics have also been deprived of the tenure which used to guarantee that they could not be removed from their posts for defending controversial opinions in public?

Viewed from another perspective, to be sure, the view of the student in the Home Office appears diametrically opposed to that in BIS. On the one hand, the Home Office minister assumes that university students are essentially children, who lack the capacity to think critically about religion, politics and society, and who must therefore be protected from radical ideas. On the other hand, the universities minister assumes that seventeen-year-olds choosing a university course are paragons of economic rationality, who know their own minds, know their own preferences, know everything they need to know about all the educational options available to them, and make perfectly informed and rational decisions about which university course is best for them. It is this fantasy of perfect economic rationality which underpins the founding myth of the new university funding regime: namely, the idea that student choice will drive up standards and drive down prices throughout the English university system.

How are we to explain these seemingly opposite analyses of the student mind? One explanation might be that government policy is fundamentally incoherent. After all, if student-consumers really were perfectly rational maximizers of their own economic utility, we would not need to worry that they might abandon their careers in, say, business administration to court martyrdom in the wastelands of Syria. An alternative but by no means incompatible explanation is that the reconciliation of these apparent antitheses is the underlying goal of a coherent but two-pronged policy. On the one hand, the marketization of higher education is designed to train young people in the single-minded pursuit of economic self-interest within the framework of globalized capitalism. On the other, banning dissent from the university neutralizes any tendency students might have to question the wisdom and justice of that framework. Together, these policies represent another step toward a regime in which students are given complete liberty to practise and internalize the logic of the dominant economic paradigm, but prohibited by law from being exposed to ideas which challenge it.

Some will doubtless dispute how large a step this is. But the thing about steps is that one is normally followed by another. Most of the steps mentioned above – the abolition of tenure, the overspecialization of research, the growth of autocratic line management, the decline of academic self-governance, the increase in bureaucracy, the withdrawal of direct public funding, and the vocationalization of university education – were initially justified as relatively modest adjustments necessary to adapt the university to new conditions. In matters of university policy, it is the direction of travel that matters. The Home Office minister’s proposal to censor free debate on campus is one more step along this well-trodden path. It is unlikely to be the last.

Further Reading on the Subject:

UCU statement on the counter-terrorism and security bill 2014-15.

Joe Sandler Clarke, ‘Terrorism Bill “Incompatible” with Coalition’s Stance on Free Speech After Paris Attacks’ (Times Higher Education, 15 January 2015).
Martin Hall, ‘Universities Must not Become Part of the Security Apparatus’ (Times Higher Education, 9 January 2015).